Monday, August 18, 2008

When Less Was More

Vague plans for the weekend went to the wall once I started watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I had promised myself that I could spread the episodes out over the evenings, into the week, but the draw to see the story through became too much. The profile on David Cornwell, included on the discs as an extra, finished on Sunday evening in time for Top Gear.

The weekend before had proved to be the right time to rewatch Edge of Darkness, while the evenings in between were filled with the first Messiah, Stephen Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers and Capturing Mary, and the opening episodes of the first series of Secret Army. The only time when I had watched a drama from the actual schedules it was the final episode of Bonekickers on Tuesday night, which was enough to turn anyone off television for good.

The obvious answer to relying on the DVDs might have been to simply avoid the Beijing games stripped across the schedules with its wanky BBC presenters and their snarky comments about China. Obviously they’re going to lay on the cloying jingoism rather thickly, but when they gave airtime to inarticulate track-and-fielders explaining that Michael Phelps shouldn’t be crowned as the greatest Olympian because all he did was swim, I really wanted the fuckers to be dragged out and thrown under a tank.

The thing is, even during the weeks leading up to the games I’d been turning more and more to the older dramas on DVD that actually have some substance to them, and turning away the majority of what is being lumped into the current television schedules. It’s easy to turn into a miserable old bastard, muttering under your breath that, “things were so much better back in the old days,” but stopping to think about what television was like when I was growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, I have a nagging suspicion that it was true.

There may have been far fewer channels – only three up until the arrival of Channel 4 in late 1982 – but there were far more, well-made programmes that you wanted to watch. Production values obviously weren’t as high as they are nowadays but the stories were far more intelligent, documentaries were far better, not treating the audience as hapless idiots who needed to be spoonfed reconstructions instead of talking heads and facts. The light entertainment was far funnier.

A lot of this came home while reading the broadsheet obituaries of Sir Bill Cotton who joined the BBC as a trainee producer in 1956, eventually becoming Head of Light Entertainment from 1970 to 1977, and then Controller of BBC1 from 1977 to 1981. During his tenures, Bill Cotton commissioned Dad’s Army and Not Only... But Also..., starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. He brought Morecambe and Wise to the BBC, paired Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in The Two Ronnies, launched Michael Parkinson as a Saturday-night talk show host, and talked an initially reluctant Bruce Forsyth into hosting The Generation Game.

Obviously watching those DVDs I tended to miss the scheduled news programmes, but still managed to snatch a few minutes here and there. Of course there were gold medals to be reported on, along with everything going to fiery hell in the Caucuses, but Bill Cotton’s passing seemed to go virtually without notice. At the beginning of last week, Newsnight gave time to look back on the life and career of Isaac Hayes who had died suddenly on the weekend, but there was nothing for the man whose philosophy was to provide his audience with entertainment of the highest quality.

Maybe everyone was caught on the hop. Obviously a tribute has to be planned. Amongst the many comedies that Sir Bill Cotton presided over, included with Dad’s Army and Porridge, which even repeated today still draw large audiences, was The Good Life, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s comedy about seeking self-sufficiency in middle-class suburbia. Strangely, Sir Bill Cotton passed away the day after John Esmonde, another death that went unreported until obituaries started to appear in the papers come mid-week.

It’s a shame we can’t just defoliate all these fucking channels filled with cheap, bullshit programmes and go back to something more manageable. But, hey, that’s progress for you. In the meantime the numbers are in for Spooks - Code 9. Three episodes in and it has already lost almost half of the original audience.


At 10:55 pm, Blogger qrter said...

I didn't even know Bill Cotton and John Esmonde had died. The Good Life is still one of those programmes that completely bypasses my critical faculties and hits the "warm and safe" spot.

What did you think of those Poliakoff dramas? I have a real soft spot for his work. A lot of people feel he's self-indulgent and elitist but to me that could just as easily mean he's doing what a good writer (or artist in general) should be doing - making something that's at the same time universal and quite personal, to put it a bit glibly..

Capturing Mary even made me cry. It touches on a personal fear, I guess - how anyone can be their own worst enemy. The whole tragedy of Mary, how she lets an insignificant bastard like Greville inside her head, broke my heart.

At 11:56 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

The pair both died around the same time as Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes so you can see which ones made the headlines. I love The Good Life. Like all the best sitcoms, rather than fill the roles with comedians they cast actors who could comedy. Which is why The Good Life and Dad’s Army and Porridge and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads prevail.

I saw in the Radio Times today that they’re showing an episode of The Good Life on Bank Holiday Monday, before University Challenge as a tribute to John Esmonde. Obviously he deserves better but that’s typical of the current mentality.

I absolutely love the Poliakoff dramas, since I first saw Caught on a Train back in the early 1980s. The great thing is, they get better. I love how in recent years he’s connected the dramas together, so Friends and Crocodiles and Gideon’s Daughter had Robert Lindsay’s character Sneath as a linking device, while Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary (and A Real Summer) had the empty, elegant house and characters frozen by past events.

Much as I loved Gambon in Joe’s Palace, Capturing Mary was just the best. Never a great fan of Little Britain, I thought David Walliams was an absolute revelation as Greville White. Maggie Smith was just magnificent as usual. And it makes me cry, too. Oh boy, does it make me cry.

Poliakoff’s dramas may not be for everyone. The great unwashed probably thinks his work is horribly elitist but they can fuck off to EastEnders. His dramas work for me because Poliakoff has a unique voice and magnificent obsessions that rise high above the usual nonsense slopped into the schedules.

At 4:13 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

Good stuff, as usual, GD.

The one word that really stands out in that post is 'substance'.

Not every programme has to be deep and meaningful, but these days nothing is.

Have you watched Don't Die Young on BBC2?

This is what currently passes for a science programme.

A couple of weeks back I sat through an episode about the digestive system.

It opened with a fire engine being driven into a town centre. Members of the public were asked the question: If your intestines were a hosepipe on this engine, how long would they be?

Then we met an estate agent who lied about surviving on nothing but coffee and chocolate.

Next, presenter Alice Roberts shoved a pipe through her nose and into her stomach, retrieving some stomach acid, which in a series of laboratory tests proved to be, er, acid.

Then we were introduced to an elderly cancer patient who first realised something was wrong when he soiled himself while playing bowls.

Finally, Alice and the estate agent ate a tin of corn to see which of them could shit it out first.

Alice took gold.

In other words, the flagship medical programme on the BBC is basically an insult to anyone with a secondary school education.

Compare this to something like The Ascent of Man.

It was repeated late at night on the OU (remember that?) about ten years back. Horribly dated even then - all kipper ties and polyester shirts - it was still absolutely compelling. It was educational, thought-provoking and moving. In other words, it had that whole 'substance' thing going on.

Jacob Bronowski, who wrote and presented, chose to relate to the viewer like a grown-up.

What a novel idea.

Some of the folks making programmes today might like to give it a try.


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