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.


At 9:12 am, Blogger Ian said...

Fascinating to read the Foyle's War stuff. I'd assumed the series had stopped because Horowitz had run out of ideas and wanted it to stop. On one of the DVD extra's a few years ago he talked about this and gave early warning that there would only be a few more episodes, so I hadn't realised the political shenanigans that had forced its early cancellation.

Let's hope they find a way of reviving it.

At 9:37 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

That’s interesting, AH saying that on the DVD. I interviewed him after the first series had been broadcast and while the second was in production. In fact, he had come back into the house from his office just before I turned up.

Obviously then he was very enthusiastic about the show, especially in the way that discovering the identity of the murderer wasn’t the be-all and end-all. This was about someone trying to keep law and order when the world was at war. That in itself is a brilliant idea because nothing is ever black and white. He was also getting a lot of cooperation from the Imperial War Museum and finding out all sorts of things.

We talked about the secret manufacture of coffins that came up in the first series and there actually were coffin factories set up in the East End of London in anticipation of the massive amount of casualties they expected in the Blitz. I guess that’s something you don’t normally think about but after a night of bombing the bodies had to be quickly taken care of. Apart from the threat of disease it wouldn’t be good for moral.

Then there were other details like the funk holes where people hid out in the countryside, or the contents of galleries and museums being stored in disused mines, of the IRA atrocities in Coventry and in London. I found it all really fascinating.

AH was born in Stanmore, close to RAF Bentley Priory, which had been the home of RAF Fighter Command Headquarters during the Second World War. That was the reason for Foyle’s son, Andrew, being an RAF pilot. Obviously it’s more practical because if the character was in the army or navy he’d soon be packed off overseas. That aside, AH remarked because ‘The Few’ have become such a legend that he wanted to explore what it must have been like to be one of them. He started by reading Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy and just went from there.

After the first couple of series, Julian Ovenden, who played Andrew Foyle, headed over to America to try his luck there. That may have thrown a spanner in the works. Also, it was a bugger to make. Make an adaptation of an Austen novel and you’ll need carriages and corsets, and English country houses. They’re easy to find. But if you need an original 1940s-era building, that can be a real sod.

Filming the second series they found locations they had previously used weren’t there anymore. Either they’d been knocked down for redevelopment or modernised. Streets have street markings, which need to be erased. Houses have television aerials or replaced glass windows and doors.

Then there are the period vehicles and aeroplanes. AH was a little ticked off that after the first series had been transmitted, somebody wrote in and said the Spitfire they had used was from 1943 and the episode was set in 1940. Well, there aren’t that many Spits left and you make do with what you’ve got. All in all, production could be a bugger.

The final episode looked like AH was trying to put into it all the things he wanted to say. Growing up in the Westcountry, I’d known for years about the pre-D-Day exercises that had cost lives, but only recently it came to light about the troop ships being attacked by e-boats in the channel. There was a great documentary about it a while back. So there was that, and what he wanted to say about soldiers returning from the war and how the experiences had changed them, and the direction the characters were taking toward the final hurrah!

In the end there was just too much, which was a shame. Because it was a cracking series.

At 11:51 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

Great stuff.

Love the idea of someone complaining about the use of the wrong kind of Spitfire.

That guy obviously doesn't watch much TV.

At 8:50 am, Blogger Ian said...

Thanks for this. Good stuff. I loved the show - one of the few where after catching the first series on DVD I couldn't wait for new shiny discs and made a point of looking out for broadcast transmissions (even with those annoying ads interrupting the atmosphere every quarter of an hour).

When people really care AND work hard AND aren't too up themselves drama really works.

That being said, my critical faculties may be slipping. I've actually been enjoying the last few Doctor Who's!

At 12:48 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I’ve been accused in the past of hating all British television drama by numpties who have got themselves wound up by my comments and couldn’t continue the argument. There are shows I really love - Foyle’s War obviously one of them –
simply, as you say, because they’re made by people who care about what they’re doing and who put every in effort to get it right. None of them feel the need to jump about and shout out how utterly bloody brilliant they are.

Watching Doctor Who and enjoying it? Oh, no, no, no! I did have the last two running on iPlayer or the TV, only because the Sontarans were such shit villains I wondered what they would get up to.

Oh dear. All the playing soldiers was such utter piffle.

I don’t know if you know but prior to 05:29 and 45 seconds on July 16, 1945, Enrico Fermi took bets with the other scientists who worked on “the hill” on the probability of the coming explosion igniting the atmosphere, and, if it did, whether just New Mexico or the whole world would be destroyed.

Apparently igniting the atmosphere is a very, very bad thing.


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