Monday, May 26, 2008

Good & Bad

I seriously ache. This weekend I’ve been doing more exercise than usual. Which means I’ve actually been doing some exercise. And now it feels like someone has crept into the flat and beaten me with a stick while I was sleeping.

Luckily today has been a typically miserable English Bank Holiday with low cloud and near continual rain being blown across the city. Anyone venturing out has done so with perpetual rain-lashed scowls slapped across their faces. To it seemed best to stay inside, and restrict my movements because... ouch!

The past couple of days the weights have been rolled out, the exercise mat spread across the parquet flooring at various intervals during the days, and even the TBR2i dusted down to induce it’s own healthy brand of torture. The reason for the activity is twofold, but it all came from Friday afternoon and the scheduled birthday drinks for two members of the usual drinking circle, most of whom I hadn’t seen since before Christmas.

It’s been on odd six months since we were last together. Our friend H is still the same, which is a stroke of luck because, as Work Buddy always says, everyone should have a friend like H. The first Birthday Boy, the writer pal I bumped into a couple weeks back, was still healthier and more relaxed with himself. Maybe it was because he was still off the beer, sticking to spirits instead.

By doing this he set the tone of the afternoon, allowing everyone to have a relaxing time with sensible conversation for once. Of course only the first half of the party was there. The second Birthday Boy was yet to arrive with his coterie, it was usually him and his close friends who would get themselves bladdered in record time.

The last six months with the second Birthday Boy have been interesting. He’s always been a bit of a lunk but we’ve tolerated him over the years, even when he’s ballsed up things we were trying to get done. Except this year he went too far, not understanding that big boys games means big boys rules. Both Work Buddy and I have simply had enough.

Instead of joining us in the pub, Work Buddy was in Barcelona, on the eve of playing a gig there. Before he lit out we discussed how I should handle this upcoming situation. It worked out pretty much to plan. When the second Birthday Boy eventually blundered into the pub, just as expected his first remark to me immediately set my teeth on edge. I put an arm around his shoulder and very quietly and calmly told him to keep the fuck away from me.

After that everything was just fine. The first Birthday Boy had invited along the agent who is a mutual friend of ours. The agent brought a friend of hers – a woman who is certainly making the most out of life, previously sojourning in French Quebec and then Tibet. Strangely, as we compared lives, she found me inspiring. Hopefully it wasn’t the wine talking.

So why the exercise? At one point on Friday afternoon I had to run for a bus – or rather run the length of a bus before it pulled away from the stop. By the time I stumbled aboard it felt like my chest was going to explode. That’s not good.

Also, when the agent’s friend returns from a trip to Italy she wants to teach me yoga. Having checked out the likes of the Standing Bow Pulling Pose, Balancing Stick Pose, and Full Locust Pose, I figure I need to at least get my joints and limbs flexible and supple. Otherwise I’m going to end up in traction.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The UK Invasion

The end of this year is going to be a difficult time for viewers who prefer US shows above home grown television series. With the WGA strike biting into pilot season the networks seem to have decided on sticking with the devil they know. From the select band of new shows that will appear when the Fall Season starts broadcasting, a number of them will look strangely familiar to viewers over here.

Good or bad, when English shows are given an American makeover the results are usually quite intriguing. Usually it’s like meeting a friend who has had reconstructive surgery and to begin with you’re mentally comparing the before and after while trying to decide whether it was necessary or not. In the end it’s down to the expertise of a surgeon who knows what’s best for the patient. The US version of The Office turned into an unqualified success because Greg Daniels, the writer and executive producer, perfectly understood what he was getting from the source material.

On the other hand, Viva Laughlin, BBC Worldwide’s version of Peter Bowker’s musical drama Blackpool, was canned by CBS last year after just two episodes were aired and frankly it deserved it. Monarch of the Glen’s Lloyd Owen was a poor choice to replace David Morrissey as Ripley Holden, in fact the whole cast seemed to have been chosen for their lack of vitality. Most astonishing was the fact that the miserable pilot had cost £7m, which was probably more than the original six-part series.

This year there’s the Americanization of Life on Mars for everyone to chew over. Whether it succeeds or fails, it’s certainly going to be interesting to see how far executive producer David E. Kelley shakes up the concept of a modern-day police detective transported back in time following a hit-and-run to give it longevity. It was obvious that the original creators concocted the scenario of sending Sam Tyler back to the early 1970s so they could have fun pretending they were making The Sweeney.

If they go that route what would be the comparable American drama? Given this new version is set in 1972 maybe that would be The Streets of San Francisco, although I can’t really see Colm Meaney channelling Karl Malden to perfect his Gene Hunt. Otherwise, what do they get out of 1972 other than lots of afros and piles of cardboard boxes to drive through? If “The Rules are Old School” as the US show’s trailer states, why not take the Crime Story route and head back to a pre-Miranda 1963 where the cops could kick in doors and bust heads to their hearts’ content.

Another upcoming drama taking place in 1972 is David Milch and Bill Clark’s Last of the Ninth for HBO. Set in New York, in this instance the year is significant because it was when Clark, a twenty-five year veteran of The Job before becoming technical consultant on NYPD Blue, earning his gold detective shield. It was also the year the Knapp Commission investigated allegations of systemic police corruption, which makes it all the more relevant. In this instance the timing makes sense. Of the two dramas, I think it’s pretty clear which one I’m looking forward to.

Whatever the outcome, ABC has scheduled Life on Mars on Thursday nights in the ten o’clock slot. At the same time over on CBS, taking Without a Trace’s coveted slot straight after CSI, will be Jerry Bruckheimer’s take on Stephen Gallagher’s Eleventh Hour, with Rufus Sewell taking over from Patrick Stewart as Doctor Hood, the scientist and special government advisor actively pursuing those ingrates who misuse scientific breakthroughs for their own gain, and Marley Shelton stepping into Ashley Jensen’s shoes as “feisty female bodyguard” Rachel Young. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which show is going to ace this timeslot.

Apparently US sitcoms are in decline. That’s what they say. The “they” being people who obviously don’t watch The Office, 30 Rock or My Name is Earl. To stem the tide, CBS are parachuting in Worst Week, a reworking of The Worst Week of My Life. I quite liked the original, if only because, if I recall rightly, Ben Miller’s character repeatedly did unspeakable harm to the family dog before eventually killing it. I have a feeling no pets will be harmed in the US version, which will be a real shame.

Though not British in origin, Australia’s Kath & Kim has been shown over here – which is the sort of tenuous link that has media outlets wildly celebrating the massive haul Britain annually brings home from the Oscars. Now it’s being remade over there, with NBC having a crack at an American version. Molly Shannon and Selma Blair are climbing into the stretch pants originally worn by Jane Turner and Gina Riley. It’ll be interesting to see if middle-class America wants to watch a show that takes the piss out of them.

After that there’s Suburban Shootout in development at HBO, which is frankly quite too despressing to even think about. The original, shown here on Five, relied on the gag that instead of making jam or having coffee mornings, the Home Counties housewives were tooled up with automatic machine pistols and into all manner of illegal shenanigans. So chuckles were to be had from the juxtaposition of Barbour jacket-wearing middle-aged women with perfect hair and makeup toting Glocks or Heckler & Kochs. How will that work setting in a country where every uptight arsehole has a gun?

The interesting thing about reading the press releases for these shows is how the original creators are treated. Although he has no direct involvement with the American version, the release for Eleventh Hour rightly announces that the drama is “based on the British miniseries by acclaimed science-fiction writer Stephen Gallagher”, just as ABC states that Life on Mars “is based on the BBC series created by Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah”.

But when it comes to the comedies it’s an altogether different matter. Whereas Turner and Riley are credited with the creation of Kath & Kim and given executive producer credits on the US version, and the same for Suburban Shootout’s Roger Beckett, Laurence Bowen, and Gary James Martin, The Worst Week of My Life co-creators Mark Bussell and Justin Sbresni are conspicuous by their absence on any material relating to Worst Week with only Hat Trick Productions’ Jimmy Mulville listed as an executive producer.

If you do this sort of thing it can get quite tricky. One pilot that didn’t get picked was the US version of Spaced for FOX. In material relating to the show Adam Barr, a co-executive producer on Will & Grace and The New Adventures of Old Christine, was listed as the show’s sole creator. It’s fair to say that this royally narked Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes and Edgar Wright who were more taken aback by the complete lack of common courtesy from Granada America or McG’s Wonderland Sound and Vision.

Because they had initially signed away their rights to what had certainly been a labour of love, their grievances weren’t regarding monetary payments but the total lack of respect from companies that didn’t bother to let them know this new version was going ahead until the pilot was in production. By then Pegg and Wright’s names were being used in publicity material solely to trade on the success of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Jessica Hynes, though co-creator of Spaced, failed to get a mention. You’ve got to love this business.

So which shows could do with a full on US makeover? Have a think about it and let me know. In the meantime I’m trying to figure out why it is that Doctor Who seriously doesn't work for me. I’ve really got to sort my head out over this once and for all.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Future Is Bright

The Times today ran a piece by Michael Evans, the newspaper’s Defence Editor, about how the government is considering introducing a new Bank Holiday to celebrate the work of the Armed Forces. Whether it comes into effect or not the country should be brought together immediately to celebrate the news that Russell T Davies is stepping down as executive producer on Doctor Who.

This has been of the cards for a while now and in late March, in an interview in The Daily Telegraph, RTD stated that Piers Wenger would be the new executive producer. Whether that was the case then, or it was another example of the weeble cocking around with the fourth estate, Stephen Moffat has been announced as the new head writer and exec producer.

This sort of news should lead to people piled up and fucking and sucking in the streets. And cake. Although there is Jekyll to consider, which started off interesting and then went all silly, Moffat has been responsible for the better episodes. And, of course, there’s Blink. So while he’s a fan of the show – which means the lunatics will still be running the asylum – Moffat doesn’t come across as the sort of total cock who would willingly compare Robert Holmes’ The Talons of Weng Chiang to Dennis Potter.

He doesn’t step up until production of the fifth series in 2010, but for once it means that we can actually look to the future and smile.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Brought To Book

It seems quite a novel idea nowadays to buy a newspaper simply for the news. If you want to know what’s going on in the world, that’s what Today on BBC Radio 4 is for. Red tops and resized broadsheets seem to exist solely for the Sudo Ku and free books, CDs and DVDs.

After the slender novella Octopussy, coupled with the slight, nine-page 007 in New York, accompanied Saturday’s edition of The Times, each day of this week the newspaper is giving away copies of Ian Fleming’s first five James Bond novels. This meant Casino Royale today, Live and Let Die tomorrow, and on until From Russia with Love on Friday.

This is all very decent of them because I haven’t read the books – which had two bullet holes cut in the cover – since I was eight or nine and it will be interesting to see what I think of them over three decades later. Of course the promotion leads up to the centenary of Ian Fleming’s birth and the editions prominently advertise the new Bond novel, Devil May Care, written by Sebastian Faulks.

It’s a shame these copies have the lurid Richie Fahey designs rather than the wonderful Michael Gillette covers for Penguin’s hardback centenary reprints. Still, they’re free, and it’ll be great to be reacquainted with Fleming’s snobbery and sadism after all these years.

During a spot of none too strenuous tidying yesterday afternoon I came across various newspaper freebies scattered on the bookshelves’ shelves: CDs, DVDs, CD-Roms that probably won’t play on a Mac, all in their little square cardboard sleeves. Come the earlier evening, and looking for something to watch, I settled on David Hare’s Plenty.

According to the cover it had come free with The Daily Telegraph. When exactly I couldn’t say, but like most of the films acquired this way it was something I was interested in seeing but not enough to pay good money to satisfy my curiosity.

Meryl Streep’s cut glass English accent is faultless and director Fred Schepisi and Ian Baker, his DP, make it look quite beautiful. But once Tracy Ullman and Sting turned up it was like being invited to look at a beautiful landscape but only after someone had rubbed shit in your eyes. I paused it while I started to cook and stayed in the kitchen so long that the player sensibly turned itself off.

I ate watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It didn’t totally spoil my appetite. Amongst all the stunts and pratfalls there is a pretty good story about the reconciliation between fathers and sons. But because the previous film had been a rather nasty, dark affair, it’s pretty obvious that for the third effort they wanted to lighten it up. The problem was they just went far too far.

Influenced by those marvellous old Republic serials that used to play during the holidays, Raiders of the Lost Ark got the balance between the thrills and spills, drama and humour absolutely, perfectly spot on – which is why it is such an enjoyable film to watch. Last Crusade certainly had its moments, but they were utterly swamped by relentless double-takes and gags that turned the drama into a clownish romp that disrespected the characters.

The other thing I’d forgotten about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was how utterly bloody awful the special effects were. The whole airship sequence and fighter plane sequence was astonishingly bad. Far worse than Albert Whitlock’s astounding work on The Hindenburg, fifteen years earlier, and even worse than the cripplingly bad effects in Temple of Doom, how anyone at Industrial Lights and Magic thought they were acceptable to show the public is beyond me.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Feared And Respected

This past Sunday afternoon must have been a horribly desperate time for Warner Bros executives. Especially when the studio announces their weekend estimates and it turns out that Speed Racer, one of their flagship summer movies, could only claw a miserable $20.2 million from the American box office.

With the movie costing well in the region of $120 million, even before the additional expense of P&A are slathered on top, you don’t have to be a certified maths genius to know that it’s going to be brutal. What do you do in a situation like that? I mean other than shit yourself, obviously.

I suppose the only thing to tell yourself is it could have been worse. Which is just what happens when Monday comes and the actual totals are revealed, revealing Warner Bros had over-estimated the estimates. It turns out that in fact Speed Racer only made $18.6 million, which puts it not only behind Iron Man, creaming off a further $51.2 million in it’s second weekend, but What Happens in Vegas, a typically rancid-looking comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher. Really, that’s pretty much the equivalent of punching the hooker in the jaw before she’s finished blowing you.

The Yahoo! Movies website is showing the first seven minutes of Speed Racer, starting with the Warner Bros/Village Roadshow/Silver Pictures logos. Have a look. I managed to stick it all the way through, although toward the end had to shift the browser over to the second monitor so it wasn’t in my direct line of sight.

It’s certainly far too lurid and noisy for me, and there isn’t one character in that opening I could give a shit about. I may not be alone in that opinion because the same kind of apathy toward Speed Racer greeted the film in the UK where it came fourth in its opening weekend with takings of £362,102, putting it behind even Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Iron Man took close to two million smackers and yesterday I added my nine quid to the pot. While Speed Racer looks like the bright and shiny packaging of an empty box, Iron Man concentrates on establishing the characters as much as the story, making it all the more approachable. After seeing Robert Downey Jr. as playboy industrialist Tony Stark, it makes you realise that nobody else could have filled the role so well, especially the interplay between Paul Bettany’s Jarvis and the AI robots down in his garage workshop.

As he deftly brings the character to life, it helps that director Jon Favreau and the writers Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway all understand that it’s more about the man behind the mask rather than a superhero encased in metal. With Stark embroiled in corporate boardroom shenanigans, in some respects Iron Man is closer to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins than the previous Marvel offerings, but with a little hotrod red thrown in to replace the dark angst.

It’s almost as it Favreau learnt his lesson playing “Foggy” Nelson in the 2003 Daredevil. Playing everything for laughs and denigrating the source material won’t get you anywhere, but there are times when mean and moody needs to lighten up. Investing Iron Man with enough action, invention, comedy, character byplay, and simmering sexual tension between Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow’s PA, Pepper Potts, it ticked practically every box required for a successful entertaining summer movie.

Watching it two weeks after release meant that while it was still playing in big picture houses with a quality sound system, the early afternoon performance – which made up my extended “long lunch” – wasn’t packed out. Come the third time I was close to jumping out of my chair and cheering, or rocking back in the seat with laughter, I figured I ought to go to the cinema more regularly.

It definitely revised my opinion of summer movies, although we’ll see how long that lasts. Still, it is nice to get out more.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Something Fishy

I blame it on Winston Churchill myself. That may not be true, but it’s a fact. There I was, idling away the late Saturday afternoon watching Richard Attenborough’s Young Winston on BBC2 simply because I hadn’t seen it for years. When it was over, I started flicking channels, thinking it was later than it was.

You know where this is going, don’t you? Yep, I caught the last two-thirds of Doctor Who*. It was utter bilge obviously, but the one interesting thing about The Doctor’s Daughter was that, in terms of story format at least, it was probably the closest of all the new episodes to the original series.

I watched the show from probably the very tail end of the 1960s through to Tom Baker’s last year or so in the late 1970s. This may be a completely false memory, or it only happened once or twice and I’m projecting it onto all the other stories, but adventures set on alien worlds usually found the TARDIS arrive during a dispute between different races.

After an initial encounter the Doctor would find himself falling in with one side while the companions would accidentally end up with the other lot. Either they’d initially be captives or seen as saviours to their cause. Probably by the midpoint of the story, the folks set up for the audience to root for invariably turned out to be the evil bastards. Finally both sides would be brought together, Doctor and companions would be reunited, and everything would be sorted out, usually in a non-violent way.

I don’t want to imply that this was a regularly used story template, but I’m sure more than a few went down this way. Otherwise why would I have had a wave of nostalgia along with the wave of nausea while I was watching Saturday night? Either way, while it was the kind of story that could fit into the old format of four or six half-hour episodes, reduced to forty-five minutes made it seem more like a greatest hits package of a longer story.

Once again, what would have been perfectly acceptable thirty-odd years back as children’s entertainment doesn’t quite cut it nowadays. The reduced running time meant that there wasn’t time to properly set the story up, never mind giving it a chance to breath, so typically nothing made any great sense.

Why were fish-men who have run face first into steampunk soda streams being used as labour? Why, when Martha falls into a rather unappealing black swamp did the fish-man who jumps into save her drown? Since the newly minted human clones pop out the pod as youths/twentysomethings, how come Nigel Terry’s crusty old General doesn’t remember the war has only been going on for a week rather than “generations”? Why did each side only seem to be made up of a dozen or so individuals?

Also, how rubbish is the terraforming equipment when to set it off the big sparkly sphere has to be picked up and smashed on the ground? Still, it did mean that with this kind of Genesis Device in operation they could lift the final weepy death/eventual resurrection from the second and third Star Trek movies.

Maybe it should have been a two-part adventure, allowing the story and characters to be fleshed out more. That would have probably made the most sense. Whereas most dramas establish a set tone, the one thing The Doctor’s Daughter ably did was continue to show just how wildly erratic Doctor Who is in terms of storytelling, especially since it was broadcast on the weekend that Steven Moffat rightly won the Best Writer BAFTA for the beautifully crafted Blink.

* I watched the opening fifteen minutes on iPlayer later in the evening on the off chance that I had missed anything vital.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Drink Up

I really have to drink more. And I don’t mean because the writer pal I bumped into last week later admonished me for only necking down a rather pathetic two half-pints during the time we spent in a rather amiable Soho pub.

Having seriously cut back on coffee to the extent that I rarely drink it here in the flat, there are days when I simply forget to drink anything. Obviously this isn’t good, especially since guidelines from the British Dietetic Association state that an adult should pour 2.5 litres of water down their throat every day.

Health issues aside, it does lead to more immediate problems. It wasn’t until I was on the way into Central London that I realised I hadn’t had anything to drink this morning. Sure I’d rinsed my mouth during my morning ablutions, but that was it. By the time I was spat out onto Oxford Street my throat was parched and my lips felt dried out.

Which meant that on a blistering hot day I walked partway down Oxford Street, with all the girls in their summer clothes passing by, continually licking my lips before I could buy myself a bottle of water. Realizing this wasn’t perhaps the best thing to be doing, I dropped my gaze so as to avoid eye contact.

As it turned out, that was the worst thing I could do. Because when I had to stop for the lights I’d glance up and invariably there would be some young filly with the swell of her breasts straining against the flimsy cotton of a low cut top really giving me the stink eye. The bottle of Evian I eventually got my sweaty paws on probably cost more than the equivalent weight of shuttle fuel but it proved necessary.

So sorry to any of the young missies who thought I was purposefully staring at their spectacular rack. On the way back I stopped off and bought this:

I know. But it’s brilliant.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Don't Feel The Need

The start of summertime. Shit! That means it’s soon going to be time to figure out which of the big summer movies I ought to try and see. Or rather which ones I don’t want to have anything to do with. That means the time has come to forswear visiting the Apple website’s movie trailers page for a good few months. At least until the time comes when the upcoming films on offer reveal an intriguing story rather than the perpetual banging and crashing of bright colours and loud noise.

Years back I used to catch all those gloriously dumb movies. After 1991, with Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Rocketeer, I must have pretty much lost interest, because I can’t really remember any of the major summer flicks for the rest of that decade. Then again, after the growing hype typically revealed inevitable disappoints maybe I just got to thinking of each film simply on its own terms, and not as some event movie conjured up by the hard-driven publicity-fucknuts. Then, if it turns out to be not that special, it isn’t that big a deal.

Rather than see the whole summer stretching ahead, it’s probably better to take it one month at a time. For May I was considering Iron Man. It seemed an unusual character to pick but, from the amount of money that’s pouring in, has turned out to be a good choice for Marvel. Jon Favreau’s choice of Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark is an inspired bit of casting, and the trailers always looked fun. That may seem obvious but there seem to be some movies where the cretins in the publicity department don’t even seem to manage that.

When the poster for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull appeared last year I had no real interest in it. But then the trailer arrived, and those opening notes of John Williams’ Raiders March bursting onto the soundtrack elicited the most remarkable Pavlovian response. Frankly they could have stiched together any old clips as long as the music was there. I was just beginning to think that maybe it would be a good idea to see it when the BBC started broadcasting the original trilogy in the run up to this new release.

Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again simply reminded me why the further films were not only disappointing but also wholly unnecessary. Although there have been a reference or two about age in the trailers, you just know that this time Kingdom of the Crystal Skull really is going to be about the years and not about the mileage. Still, at least Spielberg and the producers have apparently made a conscious effort to make it fit in with the previous entries in the series. That includes keeping to physical effects with the stunts rather than rely on a whole lot of digital.

I wonder if the CGI-overload is why Speed Racer has crashed and burned on its opening weekend. So far the box office estimate is $20,210,000, which puts it deep in the crapper. The only Japanese cartoon I remember watching as a wee kiddie was Marine Boy. Speed Racer? Until recently, never goddam heard of it. After watching the headache-inducing trailer, never want to see it. Splattered with a retina-burning colour palette, it looked more like they had brought the Mario Kart raceways to life. Shot greenscreen, with all the action contained within a computer-rendered environment, what does that do to the thrills and spills?

They can be wilder and more outlandish, certainly, but it also makes them rather toothless. There’s certainly not the same adrenalin rush exhibited in races or car chases filmed live in what is hopefully a controlled environment. Watching the car chases in Ronin and Bullitt, The French Connection, To Live and Die in LA or Mad Max 2 and the trio of Jason Bourne films certainly gets the blood pumping, but when its just ones and zeros crunching, the experience may appear fast but lacks real fury.

Perhaps the worst thing about Speed Racer is that it runs for two hours and fifteen minutes. The only way to sit through that is seeing it in a cinema that sells sweet, salted, and Nurofen popcorn.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Leaving Fat Vegas

Earlier in the week I bumped to a friend I hadn’t seen since we all got together for pre-Christmas drinks. Since he had time to kill before a late afternoon appointment and I was going to scoot off home anyway, we decided that was the perfect excuse to settle in at the nearest pub and from there pretty much carried on the dialogue from where we left off.

With him a regarded writer/historian of British comedy, we touched on the worthiness or worthlessness of BBC4’s recent quartet of dramas that came under the umbrella title The Curse of Comedy. Like me, he was more enthusiastic for the hour-long Mark Lawson Talks To interviews, first with Galton & Simpson, then George Cole, Barry Cryer, and finally David Renwick.

Although I have some years on him, he’s still old enough to lament the decline of the chat show. Hidden away on BBC4, Lawson comes to his subjects informed rather than opinionated and creates an intelligent and entertaining dialogue. Who else is there to compare to? Jonathan-bloody- Ross? After we stopped laughing I went to the bar to get another round in.

I made the mistake of catching Friday Night with Jonathan Ross last night because I’d heard that “S’Ralan” Sugar was going to be a guest. With the new series of The Apprentice featuring a bunch of the most hapless muppets, Wednesday nights are currently the real comedy nights on BBC1. Last week’s edition in particular, with the whole kosher chicken fiasco, was one of the most hilarious things on the box.

He might have made an interesting interviewee. The problem was one of the other guests was that lardy talent vacuum, Johnny Vegas. This is the sort of person who really should have taken Dean Wormer’s advice to heart: “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life.” If Vegas had listened, he might have stopped being such an attention-seeking cock-knob long before now and made the world a far better place.

Does anyone find this guy the least bit amusing? Even on a repeat of QI a week or so back, even Stephen Fry looked like he was sick to the back teeth of him well before the recording was over. I flicked over to Peep Show instead. But I did swap back to see him, finally, tongue-tied and subdued. Wossy had actually asked him about the recent Bloomsbury Theatre gig.

According to one of the writers for The Grauniad’s arts&entertainment blog who was in the audience, Vegas arrived on stage admitting he had no material and was there simply to get laid. After some preamble he managed to persuade a teenage girl in the audience to come up on stage. While everyone seems to agree up to that point, reports varied after that.

Before the lawyers were parachuted in and the post was pulled from the newspaper’s site, the 400+ comments had started to get heated and were ending up combustible. What it boils down to is that, allegedly, once he had the girl lying on the stage, Vegas then behaved inappropriately in the writer’s eyes.

Sitting opposite Wossy, just for that moment, Vegas looked humbled. Unfortunately, by the time Sir Alan Sugar arrived on the sofa, Vegas was back in the green room being an obnoxious, unfunny arse who didn’t like the fact that the attention was now on somebody else.

So Sugar, annoyingly, kept being interrupted, and quite rightly didn’t look too happy about it. He’d get halfway through answering a question and the audience would start laughing at the retarded shenanigans. Of course the real problem was Mick Thomas, the show’s director, allowing the childish behaviour to be shown on the studio screen.

Once they had indulged him, the fat idiot just kept on doing it. At that point I just didn’t know who to be more annoyed at.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Show Don't Tell

“In case I don’t see you again... FUCK YOU!” Isn’t that what the last line of dialogue in The Truman Show should have been?

On the way home yesterday I started thinking of other films like The Golden Compass, that have really deplorable bean-spilling openings. I don’t mean something like Star Wars, whose opening crawl was vital in acknowledging the film’s roots in the old Republic serials, rather the kind of movie where jarring upfront information, slapped onto the beginning of the film, pretty much gives away vital plot information.

It may have been because late in production the studio and/or producers looked at what they had and either lost confidence in the material or in the large proportion of gormless, popcorn-grazing, cinema-audience fucktards being able to figure out what was going on without an introduction rammed with helpful hints. Either way, it makes a jarring start to the movie.

There’s always David Lynch’s Dune to point and laugh at, especially since poor Virginia Madsen, in one of her first film roles, looks like a rabbit in the headlights who would prefer to be repeatedly violated with a potato peeler than continue spouting out

Know then, that it is the year 10,191. The known universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam the Fourth, my father. In this time, the most precious substance in the universe is the spice Melange. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its navigators, who the spice has mutated over 4000 years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space.

Good grief. I went to the press screening at the Empire in Leicester Square for that one and that opening scene just sucked the air right out of the cavernous auditorium before the film had properly begun.

That said, the film that did spring to mind, leapfrogging over everything else, was The Truman Show. If I remember rightly, it starts off with a collection of brief “interview” clips from various participants that effectively ruin any sense of suspense. Then again, since the whole advertising campaign for the movie destroyed any air of mystery, this opening was pretty much the icing on the marketing cake.

Poke around on the internet and an early draft of Andrew Niccol’s script is easily accessible. Obviously it makes for interesting reading. You can understand why, on a practical level, in later drafts the environs of the show changed from New York City to a more manageable coastal town. After all, since Truman Burbank has never seen the real world, there’s no need to recreate such a massive metropolis.

Where this earlier draft works is that, long before the eventual big reveal, it concentrates on the character’s growing unease as he tries to connect the bizarre incidents that simply don’t make sense to him. In this respect it’s a paranoiac’s wet dream and would have certainly been applauded by people who remember the great conspiracy dramas of the 1970s with great affection.

Instead, obviously once Peter Weir came on board it all went decidedly fluffy. Over the course of the revisions, the script got all turned around so the emphasis was on the television show rather than a person realising his life isn’t what he thinks it is. Maybe Weir had problems with the implications of the story as it originally stood.

By the time The Truman Show was released, the audience was already made aware of what the whole damn movie was about. The posters had an image of the sleeping Burbank being shown on a massive fuck-off television with the copy ON THE AIR. UNAWARE. Before they bought their tickets, before they took their seats, before they even started shovelling popcorn into their empty maws, the audience was made complicit.

By casting the rubber-faced maroon Jim Carey, maybe we were supposed to think that the character would get over it because, really, it was just a little bit of fun. Now I can be quite a forgiving person if the situation deserves it, but if I found out my whole life was a complete fabrication, that everyone I thought dear to me had lied to me, every day that I had known them, purely for entertainment... I would go absolutely fucking postal!

But then I guess it depends on how you look at things.

Anyway, that’s the movie where I think the studio really bottled it. If you can think of one leave a message, Meanwhile I’ll be out buying Glaser Safety Slugs, just in case.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Does anyone know someone who admitted to seeing The Golden Compass when it opened in cinemas at the tail end of last year? I talked to a couple of bods who caught it before I did. While the consensus was it wasn’t really that bad, both seemed eager to drop the subject.

When I finally got around to watching it for myself I understood why they wanted to move the conversation on. Watching The Golden Compass was almost like catching a good friend or family member doing something exceptionally embarrassing. Instead of speaking up one just backed out the room, resolving never to mention it again.

It’s not it’s a totally awful film, but it should have been so much better. I still haven’t yet replaced the Philip Pullman novels so there’s no way to compare it to the source material, which may be a good thing. Even without them, The Golden Compass looked like a film made by a director who didn’t have the experience or strength of vision for a studio that ultimately bottled it.

When the final trailer was released I had my suspicions that some dumbing down was being employed, but it was unbelievable how the film’s introduction sold out the story in those first opening minutes. After that it seemed almost pointless to carry on.

Tell everyone about the parallel universes connected by dust, why don’t you. Then make the audience aware that this film will include witches, Gyptians and polar bears, like someone carefully reading the ingredients. Right after that, tell them all about the alethiometer/golden compass, and round it off with just a hint that the Magisterium might be the baddies.

Compare that to the prologue at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the films New Line tried every which way to associate The Golden Compass with. The map of Middle-Earth is shown but it certainly doesn’t take the audience on a detailed guided tour. Elves, dwarves and men are introduced, but for a specific reason. First, because the Great Rings were bestowed upon them, but then, after the forging of the One Ring, because the alliance of men and elves fought Sauron’s forces on the slopes of Mount Doom to restore peace to Middle-Earth.

Instead the prologue concentrates solely on the One Ring and the journey it has previously taken, passing from Sauron to Isildur to Gollum to Bilbo Baggins. So far, that’s all the audience needs to know. Once that’s done the film starts with an introduction to the hobbits of The Shire, because that’s where the narrative begins. From then on everything and everyone else is introduced when it serves the story. Which is pretty much how normal films go about their business.

The only element the makers of The Golden Compass really needed to make clear from the outset were the dæmons, described straight away as the humans’ “animal spirits”. Otherwise the reaction from anyone unfamiliar with the books would be, eh?! Apart from that, why wasn’t everything else left until it was their turn to make an appearance? The intended audience may be young but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Actually, Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was intended for an audience slightly older than JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

Look at it from another perspective. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was the first book I remember reading outside of school, when I was four years old or thereabouts. On television in later years I saw Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk and Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. This meant that when Pirates of the Caribbean; The Curse of the Black Pearl came around in 2003, I pretty much knew the drill.

Still, there had to be a much younger audience the movie was appealing to that were, for the most part, unaware of what was, by then, a dead genre. Yet the filmmakers didn’t see the need to immediately open the feature with a long explanation involving the who, what, and where, and then point out that some of the characters might be undead, just to spoil any surprises.

Once The Golden Compass shunts the information to the beginning, it leaves the adventure that follows strangely hollow. Fundamentally, Pullman’s novel is about Lyra Belacqua rescuing her best friend after he’d been painfully snatched by the Gobblers, just as The Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo carrying the One Ring to Mordor. Add the subplots, other characters and their machinations, and it should end up with something quite enticing. Except beyond the essentials, writer/director Chris Weitz forgot to put any meat on the bones.

There’s certainly an art to turning prose into filmic moments that sadly Weitz has failed to master here. Sure, there is menace but no real mystery. Characters Lyra meets along the way, either assisting or hindering her in the journey north, come across as little more than sketched in, barely extended cameos. What we’re left with is a lot of rather lifeless standing around and talking, which isn’t as epic and adventurous as it should be.

From what I recall from the book, Lord Asriel suffers the worst indignity. With the introduction explaining the dust before he can open his mouth, and the last chapter or two of the book not making it into the final cut, his presence is pretty much redundant amongst all the elaborate wrapping.

Given that the film was expected to have a running time of over two hours – which is pretty much par for the course nowadays – but comes in at well under two hours, suggests an eleventh hour rethink that didn’t work out too well.

The same affliction is present in Gone Baby Gone. Delayed from it’s original release date late last year, it’s finally coming out here in June. Although I had my reservations, based on the trailer, curiosity won out. Unable to wait, I picked up the Region 1 DVD in the interim.

Since it hasn’t been released here yet, I’m not going to be a complete meanie and give away what happens. Suffice to say that the reason it was pulled by the distributors was because the story concerns the abduction of a young child, taken from her bed while her mother was out of the house. So, it’s easy to see why there’s been a delay.

The directorial debut of Ben Affleck, and it’s pretty darn good. But it’s not great, which I think it actually could have been. I’ve mentioned before I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane’s novels, especially his quintet of Kenzie and Gennaro books of which Gone Baby Gone is the fourth.

I highly recommend them, but be advised, they have to be read in order, beginning with A Drink Before The War and finishing up with Prayers For Rain, simply because information is carried over from one novel to the next as the pair of private investigators deal with the physical and psychological repercussions from earlier cases. Perhaps, having picked one of the later books to adapt, and not wanting to spoil anything for newcomers, Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard have very thoughtfully eradicated any mention of their past endeavours or even their past.

After all, the audience sitting down to watch the film doesn’t need to know that Patrick Kenzie’s father was a firefighter, or that Angie Gennaro was in an abusive marriage; unless, of course, the adaptation was Darkness, Take My Hand. It’s a shame Devin Amronklin and Oscar Lee, the Boston police detectives the two PIs regularly hang out with haven’t properly made it into the film, although The Wire’s Michael K. Williams briefly appears as a cop called Devin that Kenzie mines for information without any real familiarity between the two.

The mistake Affleck and Stockard have made, is in paring down Angie Gennaro’s role in the narrative. The commentary over the few deleted scenes suggests their decision rested on keeping the plot on the go. Like Mystic River, Lehane’s breakthrough novel, which was turned into a film by screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Clint Eastwood, character is as important as plot. The two are intertwined.

In the books, although Kenzie and Gennaro take some hard knocks it’s their humanity that stops them from being dragged down into the maelstrom of violence, brutality and depravity that the cases. Unless he was contracted to deliver a film of no longer than two hours, Affleck should have taken that little extra to fully integrate Angie Gennaro into the story and invest in the pair’s relationship.

If the audience knows that Kenzie and Gennaro have known each other since they were kids, and after working together for so many years have finally got it together, it would make the moral dilemma that forms the denouement and shapes the aftermath even far more devastating that it already is. Without her as an equal, Affleck’s taken a Kenzie and Gennaro novel and made a Patrick Kenzie film. And that’s a real shame.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

We Have A Winner!

Bloody hell, he only went and flipping won it! So it’s out with Ken Livingstone, who disappointed us all by turning into a self-serving weasel far sooner than expected, and in with BoJo, who rather worryingly carried out a virtually gaffe-free campaign.

Which means during all the glad-handing and photo-ops our dear Boris never wedged a foot firmly into his mouth once. Frankly, that’s a disappointment. But there’s still time. This is, after all, the man who described the Tories as “the funkiest, most jiving Party on Earth!” and stated

“My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”

While we wait for that next fresh disaster to liven things up, there’s time to remind ourselves of more of the wisdom of mayor-elect Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to go with these previous gems.

Boris on the 2005 campaign trail:

“What’s my view on drugs? I’ve forgotten my view on drugs.”

Boris on Tony Blair:

“It is just flipping unbelievable. He is a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet. He is barely human in his elusiveness. Nailing Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall.”

Boris on George Bush:

“The President is a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, unelected, inarticulate, who epitomises the arrogance of American foreign policy.”

Boris on the Liberal Democrats:

“The Lib Dems are not just empty. They are a void within a vacuum surrounded by a vast inanition.”

Boris on the pros and cons of British immigration:

“It is often immigrants who like waving flags and receiving CBEs, and they certainly seem pretty good at cricket.”

Boris on Euro-scepticism:

“I can hardly condemn UKIP as a bunch of boss-eyed, foam-flecked Euro hysterics, when I have been sometimes not far short of boss-eyed, foam-flecked hysteria myself.”

Boris on using a mobile phone while driving:

“I don't believe that is necessarily any more dangerous than the many other risky things that people do with their free hands while driving - nose-picking, reading the paper, studying the A-Z, beating the children, and so on.”

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Channel Sickness

I’m optimistic enough to say that I’m finally feeling better, although looking back on to last week I’m beginning to think that it’s the residual effects of ITV’s ongoing stupidity giving me gyp more than anything else.

For one thing, I still don’t know why ITV continue to bother with drama. Really, they should stick to their soaps, increasingly tacky game shows, and the kind of programmes that regurgitate clips of monkeys flinging shit at children or fulsome, drunken bridesmaids taking a tumble, and Harry Hill gloriously taking the piss out of it all.

Of the new one-hour ITV dramas I thought were worth a look, every one was abandoned after a few episodes at best. With their ratings tumbling like a rock as the weeks went by it simply proved that I wasn’t the only one giving up on them. If these home-grown drama aren’t much to cheer about, when the channel shells out for an imported drama that should draw a crowd it makes the news for all the wrong reasons.

Case in point is the Pushing Daisies fiasco. They buy in the nine episodes made before the WGA strike suspended further production, and then wait until Euro 2008 is only eight weeks away before broadcasting the show. How imbecilic is that? Especially when their way out of the jam is to ditch the second episode rather than transmit the first to episodes back to back as a way around it. That kind of stupidity simply beggars belief, and is a clear indication of the importance ITV gives to drama.

The only time ITV can really count on me as a viewer is with their two-hour format dramas that began with Inspector Morse back in 1987. I’m sure I read somewhere that the format came about solely because Anthony Minghella, adapting Colin Dexter’s novel The Dead of Jericho, couldn’t work out a cliffhanger that would have broken the script into two parts, and producers Ted Childs and Kenny McBain supported it.

Whether that’s the case or not, what made Inspector Morse wasn’t just the high production values and labyrinthine plots, but that it traded on the great English tradition of murder mystery. No wonder it became one of British television’s biggest drama exports. One blistering hot afternoon in Las Vegas, many years ago, there I was waiting to buy some cheap pornography and upon hearing my accent the blue-rinse Nevada biddies in line behind me let out, “Oh, we so do love your Inspector Morse!”

Of the shows that came after it, A Touch of Frost was a little rough around the edges and more in tune with contemporary social subject matter, which meant it wasn’t really part of the programme. Instead it was the shows that followed the great English tradition of murder mystery, with picturesque summer evenings illuminating bodies on the lawns of country houses.

While American crime dramas may go for high tech forensics to solve their cases through the appliance of science, we stick to the gentleman detectives who match their wits against the killers and catch them through deductive reasoning. It may not be efficient in this day and age, especially when the bodies tend to start piling up, but it reflects the eccentric side of our national character.

After Inspector Morse rolled to a close in 2000, after 33 feature-length episodes, Midsomer Murders kept up the fine tradition. Based on Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby novels, and adapted for television by Anthony Horowitz, it may have got even barmier with age, with the Midsomer region now some kind of Cotswold killing field, but that’s what makes it so utterly comforting to the viewer.

The most recent episode, broadcast last Sunday, thoroughly trounced the BBC’s highly regarded costume drama Miss Austen Regrets with almost twice as many viewers. That’s a good thing because, while Midsomer Murders remaining entertaining, Lewis, the belated and totally unnecessary spin-off from Inspector Morse, is frankly dull. Meanwhile Marple, which until recently starred Geraldine McEwan as Agatha Christie’s prize sleuth, is simply embarrassing.

To differentiate it from the definitive BBC series of the 1980s starring Joan Hickson, ITV’s Marple tried to sauce up the action. The very first episode, an adaptation of The Body in the Library, changed the identity of the murderer simply to introduce a lesbian element to the proceedings. Later in the run Miss Marple was transplanted into Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels for no other reason than it carried on the colourful pantomime.

Still, there was one drama that did work. When Inspector Morse was coming to an end, ITV put out a tender to find a suitable replacement. Of the hundreds of ideas received, the one they went with was Anthony Horowitz’s The War Detective, later renamed Foyle’s War. Horowitz’s intention was to produce a drama in which the murder mystery element was the engine running the show but not the raison d’être.

Set on the south coast of England amid the danger and disorder of the Second World War, the series revolved around moral uncertainties and dilemmas taking place against real events. And the audience bought into it. None of the nineteen episodes, broadcast over seven years, dropped below seven million viewers, with the fourth and final episode of the first series reaching over 10 million.

It routinely shut out the BBC’s Sunday night dramas, like Monarch of the Glen, and pummelled Poliakoff’s Friends and Crocodiles when it was foolishly scheduled opposite Foyle’s War fourth series opener in early 2006. It also sold very well overseas, which means that ITV probably was very wrong to cancel it after nineteen episodes.

How fucked in the head do you have to be to knock on the head one of the few dramas that consistently brings in a large audience? Incensed by the decision, Horowitz rightly named and shamed Simon Shaps, until recently ITV’s idiot Director of Programmes, for axing the drama.

Formerly the Chief Executive of Granada, Shaps took on the new role in late 2005. Within his first year at ITV he had cancelled the likes of Rosemary and Thyme, Footballers’ Wives, and Celebrity Fit Club and vowed to “reinvent” the channel’s output. This meant that by late 2007 he was being accused of copycat programming by Mark Thompson after it was pointed out that ITV’s Tycoon, You Don't Know You're Born, Dancing on Ice and Grease Is The Word bore more than uncanny resemblances to the BBC’s The Apprentice, Who Do You Think You Are, Strictly Ice Dancing and How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria.

Why Shaps had it in for the drama still remains unclear. It may be that he’s just a monumental cock, or he’s a monumental cock with his nose out of joint. He arrived at ITV in the year there were inexplicably no new episodes of Foyle’s War. Instead the film version of Stormbreaker, the first of Horowitz’s Alex Rider books, was released in the cinemas. Having written the screenplay himself, Horowitz may have been seen by Shaps as not prioritizing Foyle’s War over the movie.

The very first two series of Foyle’s War were set in 1940, while the four episodes of the third series were set between February and June of 1941. Moving forward incrementally, the show would obviously eventually reach war’s end, but it was expected to be a long way off. Except when the fourth series eventually arrived in early January 2006 with only two episodes, the action had suddenly lurched forward to April and August 1942.

The fifth series appeared a year later, again with only two episodes. This time the pair were shown months apart, rather than broadcast on consecutive weeks, with the action taking place first in December 1942 and then March of 1943. This year’s final series, consisting of three episodes covered early and late 1944 before coming to a hasty end in May 1945 and VE Day as Horowitz hastily tried to wrap everything up.

After the public outcry and general consensus that Shaps’ decision only proves that he is indeed a monumental cock, it’s interesting to see that Laura Mackie, ITV’s Director of Drama, in discussions with Horowitz to somehow continue the series. Maybe the idea will be to jump back in time and start filling in the blanks.

Back in the late 1990s when it looked like Joe Straczynski wasn’t going to get a fifth year for Babylon 5 he cut the story short and filmed the final episode, Sleeping in Light. When a deal was struck close to the eleventh hour, allowing him to go all the way with his five-year plan, a new final fourth season episode was produced and Sleeping in Light was put on the shelf for twelve months.

If ITV really was serious about continuing Foyle’s War, wouldn’t it have been an idea to pull the final episode from the schedule and shelve it until the proper time? Anyway it’s just a thought. And after being all phlegmy, it’s just something I wanted to get off my chest.