Friday, October 31, 2008

Horror Story

I’ve never really been one for getting involved in Halloween shenanigans. There have been a few good animation parties over the years. One, in the late 1980s, was on a boat trip down the Thames. My costume, with a mutant baby in a rather disgusting embryonic sac bursting out of my chest, revolted the barmaids so much they refused to serve me.

Some years back, a party in LA saw me put some real effort into it by dressing as an English tourist, with a camera slung round my neck and a bullet hole in my forehead. Amongst the costumes there was a guy in a giant lobster costume and a woman decked out as Lisa Marie’s Martian Girl from Mars Attacks! who had the perfect walk and perfect tits.

Thinking about it, back when I was a mere pup Guy Fawkes Night was the much bigger deal at this time of year. One time, during a big fireworks party in the garden, we burnt an ostrich in effigy on top of the bonfire. But that’s a whole different story, and one probably best avoided. Even if you don’t participate in All Hallows’ Eve, there’s usually something that will send a chill down your spine this time of year. For me that came today in the form of a news item from The Hollywood Reporter.

I’ve probably harped on about this before, but the best introductions I had to film growing up came from the film seasons the BBC used to broadcast on a regular basis. Why they don’t do it anymore I’ve no idea. It may be they think viewers won’t be interested or, with the recent proliferation of satellite and cable channels, especially with some dedicated to movies, it too much of a hassle obtaining the rights. Either way, it’s a damn shame.

It’s where I got to see the films of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Powell & Pressburger, including a number of their less well-known films. I was also introduced to Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, The Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. Then came genres like Film Noir, westerns from John Ford and Anthony Mann. The one I remember as a favourite, because of my age at the time, was the collections of science fiction movies from the 1950s and 1960s.

They screened it a couple of times and the list would usually include This Island Earth, The Thing from Another World, Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, Invaders from Mars, George Pal’s The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and When Worlds Collide, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Sure, kids today would probably turn their noses up at such fare, but stuck indoors on a rainy afternoon, with a mug of hot chocolate in hand, these films were just the business.

Some may have had stories that were thinly veiled allegories, warning about the red menace, and occasional creaky special effects, but those films were cracking entertainment. So much so that the sprinkling of remakes from amongst the selection never really lived up to the original. Tobe Hooper’s remake of Invasion from Mars was simply unnecessary and Spielberg’s take on HG Wells' tale of Martian invaders had great sound design but little else to recommend it.

Back in the early 1980s, John Carpenter’s The Thing stuck closer to John W. Campbell Jr’s original short story, Who Goes There?, than Howard Hawks’ earlier version but went way overboard in the gross-out effects. Watching it again recently, the real shocks, still comes from the simple blood test rather than the bodies being continually split apart. Phil Kaufman’s interpretation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, set in the post-Watergate years, was probably the most successful of all the remakes, replacing the previous fear from beyond the shores with a deep mistrust of authority.

Meanwhile, our distrust of Hollywood continues with 20th Century Fox’s remake of Robert Wise’s classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Keanu Reeves stepping into Michael Rennie’s shoes as Klaatu? When this movie comes out I think we’ll all be ill that day. Now, that is just wrong in every respect. Could it get worse? Of course. The news from The Hollywood Reporter is that Joel Silver is producing an update of Forbidden Planet for Warner Bros. from a script by Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski.

If that doesn’t elicit the kind of blood curdling scream that makes the little extortion ring of trick-or-treat twits run a country mile, I don’t know what will.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Water Board

There was something perversely comforting about the clocks going back, even if it means the nights now start drawing in and the weather on Sunday, with its leaden skies gave a sterling indication of what’s in store in the months to come. Summer, after all, appeared to be over long before the time change. The suddenly empty flowerbeds in St John’s Wood Church Gardens, previously awash with bright colour, were evidence that it was time for change.

Autumn always seems a good time to take a breath and pause, however briefly, before we hurtle towards year’s end and before everything gets draped in the sickeningly shiny festive accoutrements. In that brief moment, if we pay enough attention, nature burns around us in russets and burnished golds beneath the blazing sunsets. Of course I’d probably have change my tune if I’d come back home sodden and chilled to the bone that has been falling this evening.

Of course the largest benefit autumn brings is that, after the dry spell in the television summer schedules, finally licence fee money put to good use begins to appear on our screens. The shows proffered seem to be all the more remarkable in when compared to the seriously disappointing programming that has arrived in the US in the recent months. It kicked off in splendid style on Sunday evening with the adaptation of Dickens’ Little Dorrit, which was then followed the next night with the new series of Spooks.

When Spooks first appeared in early 2002 it was probably closer in tone to Yorkshire Television’s excellent spy drama The Sandbaggers. As it gradually evolved, by the fifth year the show was veering more towards 24 with bigger bangs and crashes and the odd bonkers plot. This certainly wasn’t a bad thing, and in most instances the episodes had such a breathless pace that they made other contemporary British dramas look like they were standing still.

With the drama returning for a seventh year, Spooks appears to have taken another leaf out of 24’s book by upping the ante in terms of torture. At some point in the new series a flashback with show Richard Armitage’s new character, Lucas North, being interrogated by his Russian captors. Rather than the simple feet in a bucket and electrodes to the genitals route, the sequence will involve waterboarding.

This process involves the detainee being placed on their back with their head lowered and a cloth placed over their airways that is gradually soaked with water. As the cloth becomes saturated it makes breathing impossible without inhaling the water impossible, simulating drowning. The technique is so barbaric that governments around the world actively condemn this method of torture, except in America.

Earlier this year during a congressional testimony, CIA director Michael Hayden, confirmed that the procedure on a trio of al-Qaeda suspects between 2002 and 2003. After Democratic senators demanded an investigation into where the interrogators had broken the law the US Attorney-General refused to define the practice as illegal torture. When Congress moved to outlaw its use they were vetoed by President Bush who claimed it was vital on the war in terror. So that puts the Bush Administration up there with the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge as practitioners of waterboarding.

Not to trivialise something this horrific, but with the current furore over the continued boorish, brattish and vulgar behaviour of media goatboys Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, if the BBC doesn’t finally terminate their contracts then this is what they should get a taste of in the bowels of Television Centre.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dramatic Happenings In Jelly City!

Speaking of things that are unnecessary, last week Broadcast put out more information about the BBC’s remake of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin that has just gone into production. It’s pretty obvious that we’re not exactly basking in a new golden age of British television comedy, which is perhaps the politest way of saying it’s all pretty much shit right now, but is this really the remedy for our laughter-vacuum ills?

There is the odd decent situation comedy like Not Going Out and Peep Show, which certainly have a high hit rate of jokes, but everything else seems to be a morass of mainly-miss sketch shows or moronic dog shit like Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, which unbelievably has been running for eight years now, and Coming of Age, which, according to the trailers, is even more witless. (If anyone feels like putting their hand up and saying, “What about Gavin & Stacey?” I found that about as entertaining as watching a cottage roof being re-thatched, on a drizzly day).

Since the consistently funny sitcoms on television for probably the best part of this year have been the repeats of Porridge and Dad’s Army and The Good Life, why doesn’t the BBC just repeat The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin instead? Adapted by David Nobbs from his novel The Death of Reginald Perrin, the show was, at that time, incredibly dark for a mainstream sitcom. Comedy has always been derived from individuals in adverse situations, but here was the titular character, a sales executive for a dessert company, going through a midlife crisis that veered toward a full-blown nervous breakdown.

Taking off the rose-tinted glasses for a moment, it may be that the decision to start afresh comes from the fact that after the first series in which Perrin ultimately fakes his own death the subsequent years didn’t quite match up, becoming more contrived as they went along. Worst was the belated fourth series, 1996’s The Legacy of Reginald Perrin, simply because it was made long after the untimely death of the great comedic actor Leonard Rossiter and lacked his vital presence in the titular role.

Why a remake? Well, obviously this is for a new generation that more and more doesn’t give a shit about anything that happened before they were born. What makes it even worse is that this new version, co-written by Nobbs and Simon Nye, is dispensing with the ongoing story thread that led the character to fake his own death and stick to single episode storylines. That aside, they’re ditching the bulk of the original characters, most of whom made Perrin, for all his anxiety, the sanest of the bunch.

According to Phil Clarke, the executive producer of the new show, called simply Perrin:

“Reggie’s still a man in crisis with the modern world, but what’s interesting is to look at where the world has changed since the 1970s and where it hasn't. It’s an opportunity to comment on the modern world without being heavy-handed.”

Okay. Well, that doesn’t really make much sense to me, but what do I know? Unless I’m missing something here, why do they specifically need to resurrect Reginald Perrin for that? David Croft and Jimmy Perry might as well get back behind the typewriter and come up with Pike, in which the lead comments on how different it is today compared to life during the war years.

Apparently Lucy Lumsden, the BBC Controller of Comedy has repeatedly called for producers to pitch more traditional sitcoms. Is this what she meant?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bourne Again

I watched The Bourne Ultimatum again over the weekend. Obviously it’s a cracking good thriller that fills the gap when there’s bugger all else on, but, with Variety reporting last week that Universal is pushing forward with a fourth instalment of the series, I was curious to see what evidence there was in continuing the Jason Bourne story.

It’s pretty obvious that most movie franchises go a film too far. Now, instead of the occasional lazy sequel, companies have an eye on turning everything they can lay their hands on into a damnable trilogy. Usually this involves taking what was a simple self-contained story and extending it beyond breaking point or trying to cobble up a different take on more of the same and getting the ingredients hopelessly wrong.

Pirates of the Caribbean, which had a marvellously entertaining first movie, disappeared up its own plot-knotted fundament halfway through the second film. Both X-Men 2 and Spiderman 2 improved on the initial film but then spectacularly crashed and burned on the third go around. Even before they were the glimmer of an idea in the screenwriters’ minds, The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II told audiences everything they needed to know about Michael Corleone without the messy, utterly superfluous third chapter.

Any right-minded, responsible individual is going to say we don’t need all these useless films spewing out onto cinema screens. The problem is the studios see them as an easy way to make money, whatever the cost, knowingly there’s a growing audience of emotionally retarded, geeky nerds who crave this cinematic equivalent of momma’s tit to suck on. These obviously include the fans happy to watch a Star Wars film that included fucking teddy bears and the next generation of demon spawn, sired by the ones who amazingly got to stick their dicks in a woman.

They’re probably the lot to wept for joy at the arrival of the second Star Wars trilogy, because they didn’t mind the whole thing with the fucking teddy bears, or whooped at the news of a fourth Indiana Jones movie without realising that, after Raiders of the Lost Ark, the series had actually gone downhill. Hell, they probably ache for another go around Jurassic Park, the fucktards!

Like junk food, one of these films once in a while is not wholly a bad thing, but you can’t gorge on them all the time. Otherwise it’ll turn you into a gormless moron. The great thing about the Jason Bourne films is that, while providing the requisite heart-pounding adrenaline rush, they still harked back to the sometime downbeat thrillers of the 1970s rather than indulge in insipid high concepts that regularly go way over the top with stupid high-tech gizmos that stand in for story and character.

With The Bourne Ultimatum the series reached its natural conclusion both narratively and visually. Why take it further? I suppose because Casino Royale took the long-running Bond franchise back to Bourne-like, bare-knuckle basics and racked in a whole heap of cash for Sony. With the upcoming release of Quantum of Solace set to do the same, Universal probably hope to get back in to the game and grab a share of that pot for themselves. If they are going to do it, I hope they get it right rather than do an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and sully the memory of everything that went before.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Drawing A Crowd

Has it been a week already? I suppose I could have posted about Russell T Davies being an even bigger arsehole than usual, given his remarks at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, but it probably wouldn’t have helped my blood pressure, even with the regular doses of Ramipril and Amlodipine.

I had a meeting this afternoon with a woman who had been heavily pregnant when I’d seen her a couple of times back. Once we’d gone through and I was on the way out, I asked how the baby was. She took a framed photograph off the desk and proudly showed me her four-year-old son. Had it been that long?

It doesn’t seem like a year since CBS put their faith in Viva Laughlin, the Americanization of Peter Bowker’s musical drama Blackpool. Co-produced by BBC Worldwide and Sony Pictures Television, the network eagerly spunked $7m on the pilot, which even at that price managed to look remarkably cheap and nasty compared to the original, and then dug deep for a further 20 million clams to market the new show.

When Blackpool was broadcast on the BBC in 2004 the audience was instantly reminded of Dennis Potter, which can’t be a bad thing. When Viva Laughlin was broadcast on CBS, it most probably reminded audience members of Steven Bochco’s police drama Cop Rock, which is not exactly a good thing. Premiering to only 8.4 million viewers, Viva Laughlin lasted only a couple of episodes before CBS pulled the plug.

I’m not saying the fact that it got booted off the schedule was wrong. I watched the pilot and long before the end of the first act wanted to swallow my own tongue, right after I’d dunked it in hot chillies and then set it on fire. But I do wonder whether the show would have had the glimmer of a fighting chance if, rather that being thrown naked and alone into the early Fall Thursday night schedule, CBS had premiered Viva Laughlin a week later, in tandem with the return of the ratings-winning CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

This year the network wisely waited until Grissom and his team made a comeback, investigating the murder of one of their own, before slipping their new version of Eleventh Hour in afterwards. I suppose the network should be congratulated for not bringing the curtain down on further adaptations of English programmes, but then this is coming from Jerry Bruckheimer Television, which has a pretty good track record with CBS.

If rumours are to be believed, the network trumped ABC in a bidding war, stumping up close to $30 million for the rights, so obviously they have some faith in the show. I’m loathe to admit that I only have a fuzzy memory of the four episodes that first appeared on ITV with Patrick Stewart in the role of Dr Hood. That said, the premiere appeared to stick pretty closely to Stephen Gallagher’s original, using the same premise from his first episode.

Maybe if it wasn’t coming in the wake of Fringe, which covered the same territory but with a far more bonkers approach, Eleventh Hour might have seemed more than routine. It was certainly well made and Rufus Sewell gave an interesting performance in the lead role, but... it just lacked the special something that makes things really stand out from the herd. It certainly didn’t have the same kind of high concept as Life on Mars, which, by a quirk of programming, was scheduled directly opposite Eleventh Hour last Thursday night.

The original US pilot for Life on Mars has been floating around for a few months now and probably everyone who has caught it will probably admit it wasn’t very good. That’s probably surprising given that it was co-written by David E. Kelley and directed by Thomas Schlamme, but these things happen. One reason why it didn’t come together may have been because it seemed like a troupe of amateur travelling players had decided to stage their version of the original in a city that didn’t feel comfortable hosting the story.

The revised version, which had however many more millions thrown at it, relocated to New York and threw out all the existing cast save for Irish actor Jason O'Mara in the role of Sam Tyler. The first go around, he had appeared rather bland in the role but remarkably, acting opposite Gretchen Mol, Michael Imperioli, and Harvey Keitel replacing Colm Meaney in the role of Gene Hunt, O’Mara certainly upped his game. It also helped that the new pilot included Clarke Peters from The Wire, though unfortunately his character was from the present day prelude, and the great Mike Starr, who hopefully will be in a recurring role.

I had reservations that the reworked episode used the appearance of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center as visual shorthand to show that Tyler was back in the past. As the episode progressed it soon became obvious that, purely from a production standpoint, redressing a block of New York to make it look like 1973 was far easier than anywhere in Los Angeles, which had been the first choice of location.

It also helped that they hadn’t stuck closely to the original narrative, which I still maintain was simply an excuse for Mathew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah to write The Sweeney, thirty years too late, so much so that I’d actually be happy to watch further episodes. That certainly wasn’t an impulse the BBC version elicited back in 2006.

Of course how both shows fare depends on the viewers’ response to both shows’ second episodes. Like in the movies, aggressive blanket marketing campaigns can buy the first night audience. Both Life on Mars and Eleventh Hour managed to attract 11.6 million viewers, give or take. With US drama not exactly cutting it with the audience, and even the once lauded Heroes now down around the eight million mark, those kinds of numbers aren’t that bad.

Since networks want to hold their viewers’ attention for a whole evening, hoping they won’t fidget with the remote at any time, it isn’t simply about individual ratings figures anymore. While, on NBC, Life on Mars held on to 80% of the audience that had tuned in to watch Grey’s Anatomy an hour earlier, over on CBS Eleventh Hour lost over half of CSI’s 25.3 million viewers, which means that some polls will put it as the loser of the hour.

Whatever the future holds for both shows, the episodes were better than any drama I’ve seen on UK television these past seven days. Although since I’ve been steadily working my way through The West Wing DVDs, currently revisiting the second season, there hasn’t been much else I’ve watched.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Too Many Heroes

Missing out on the season premiere of Heroes I finally caught up with it on iPlayer. Did BBC2 have some kind of recap last week to ease the audience into this third year because I didn’t have a clue what the heck was going on? Maybe I should go out and rent the second year to try and figure out how it went from there to here.

Heroes had a great first season, introducing the various characters and gradually setting up the whole “save the cheerleader, save the world” storyline with a clear villain. Obviously a drama builds on each successive year but this show seems to have exploded with the pieces landing all over the shop.

Obviously the last series was cut short by the WGA strike and never really got up to speed, but there seems to be no indication of carrying on its narrative threads. Wasn’t there something about a killer virus in the future? Didn’t some Irish lass get stranded there? What happened to all that? What about all the Company founders being killed off? And what about the character played by the actor from Alias who first appeared in feudal Japan and then popped up at the end?

Season two had caught some criticism because either Hiro spent too long in Japan or Peter Petrelli spent too long stuck in Ireland with no memory. It really became that second difficult album that didn’t quite find its groove. But it wasn’t just that they spent too much time on individual characters; it was that their stories weren’t exciting enough. It’s almost like the producers decided, well that didn’t work, let’s figure out something new.

So perhaps the real problem isn’t that they’ve taken the previous narratives back into the shop and are taking their own sweet time to strip them down to see what parts work. What appears wrong with this year is that to pick up the pace far too many pieces are on the board, especially now that this Brotherhood of Evil Mutants has been released, and there just isn’t the space to deal with all of them.

With its expanding cast, Lost still concentrates on a few characters at a time, eventually making sure that everyone gets a fair shake over the season. If Heroes continues to give its spread of characters just a bite size of screen time apiece in each episode, surely this fractured narrative will soon come close to incoherence.

Perhaps Heroes really is one of those shows best experienced on DVD where you can catch a couple of episodes on the trot, allowing it to make more sense. Because watching an episode a week, trying to work out what the hell everyone is up to, I’m not sure whether I want to wait around and find out.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Parting Shit

It’s fair to say it had been a good week thus far. Sure, there was good and bad as there always in, but remarkably it seemed to be balanced out quite well for a change.

For instance, Wednesday was bright and sunny while I was home and then on the train in to London. As soon as I got into the centre and was out on the street it absolutely bucketed down, which was an utter pisser. So I ducked into HMV because it had a big sign announcing a sale with up to 70% off.

Usually the big reductions are on the useless tat but there was The Complete West Wing boxset reduced from £200 down to fifty quid. Having previously borrowed Mr Mark’s missus’ DVDs to watch, I figured it was time to have my own, especially given the bargain price for 154 episodes and most of the Region One extras.

I had meant to catch the new season premiere of Heroes but flicking through the listings in the London/East England edition of The Times’ arts supplement The Knowledge, I wasn’t paying enough attention to notice that they’d reprinted BBC2’s Wednesday night schedule for Thursday as well. Of course I came across the wrong day first.

If I’d bothered to watch television the past couple weeks rather than continue to bury my head in David Simon’s book, I probably would have been bombarded with trails for the third season. So, I missed it, but I guess going back to The West Wing instead meant I watched something that involved great writing and acting rather than utter confusion.

During the last seven days I even started work on a project that got delayed while I got bogged down in other things. Even though this was embarrassingly overdue, I guess I was lucky that the client wanted me to do and stuck with me. So, as I said, it’s been pretty darn good.

And then I caught up with the news about Traitor’s final blah, blah, blah before she leaves her job as BBC Head of Fiction and fucks off to pastures we don’t care. Apparently her parting shot came at the Women in Film and Television event held at BAFTA this week where she railed against what she described as the “fetishisation” of single drama on television, which only proves what a total horse’s ass she is.

She told those assembled: “There’s a very good place for the single play on TV, but you can also get it in the theatre and in the cinema. Neither theatre or cinema can do a six-part series,” then cited Peter Moffat’s Criminal Justice, which was shown over five nights, Paul Abbott’s celebrated political thriller State of Play and Peter Kosminsky-directed peace-keeping drama Warriors as examples of the utter bollocks she was talking about.

Where do you start with such a dumb statement as that? The theatre and cinema is only made of single dramas? What about Tom Stoppard’s The Coast Utopia, which consists of a trilogy of plays about the origins of political radicalism in 19th century Russia? Or Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War, David Hare’s trilogy of plays about the state of contemporary Britain?

What about these various film trilogies that keep cropping up? They may err on the side of spectacle rather than story, but even if you don’t like these movies – and I’m certainly not always a fan – they still tell a story. Is Traitor’s point simply about length? Because one part of a television drama serial is usually an hour long, that normally makes it half the length of one part of a film trilogy, so they tend to even out.

Taking one of her examples, Warriors was only a two-part drama than ran just under three hours in total. If it’s not about length but number of episodes, maybe she should have cited Kosminsky’s political drama The Project from 2002, because as well as being written by Leigh Jackson who scripted Warriors, at least that was in three parts.

As an argument, what she said was obviously crap, which really shouldn’t come as any surprise. It appears anyway that this ill thought out nonsense was just Traitor’s attempt to try and put some weight behind her argument against the repeated calls to revive such strands as Play for Today, something the stupid woman calls as being “anachronistic”.

Traitor’s criticism seems to be because such series use the material to address social issues. Don’t other dramas do that as well? Doesn’t she know about subtext? Or does this idiot woman only ever take everything at face value?

Back in the 1960s The Wednesday Play certainly did address social issues by tackling such contentious topics as racial prejudice, capital punishment and homosexuality. In 1965, the broadcast of the Ken Loach-directed Up the Junction was timed to coincide with a parliamentary debate on the Abortion Law Reform Bill. The following year Cathy Come Home led to public outrage at the state of housing in the country and put Shelter, the new homeless charity in the spotlight.

Under the Play for Today banner, Edna, the Inebriate Woman, also written by Jeremy Sandford and starring Patricia Hayes, tackled homelessness while Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 drama Through the Night highlighted the deficiencies of post-operative care for patients undergoing breast cancer treatment. But aside from social matters, both series should just as importantly be celebrated for the sheer diversity of the material they presented.

Much more importantly, in television terms, The Wednesday Play and Play for Today showcased the work of new writers. The 1971 play Circle Line was written by W. Stephen Gilbert who had won a BBC Student Play competition and instead of Criminal Justice, State of Play and Warriors, Traitor could have mentioned Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective and Karaoke as examples of television drama at its best.

Three multi-part dramas unique to television, because the film adaptations of the first two certainly showed they don’t work in a different medium, the trio of course were written by the late Dennis Potter who began his television writing career under the aegis of The Wednesday Play. There he had the opportunity to find his unique voice.

Nowadays we have this BBC writing academy but all it does is train up new writers to script useless bullshit like Casualty and Holby City. Obviously new writers need experience in the industry first but inconsequential serial drama is just deadening. Meanwhile the few multi-part dramas that appear each year seem, on the whole, to be by the same usual suspects.

If we had a new version of Play for Today that concentrated on lower-budgeted single dramas it could be a good springboard for a new generation of writers to show what they can offer. Some may not work, but if two or three new writers emerge, that can only be a good thing. When Traitor fucks off, hopefully the person who takes her place has the brains to understand that.