Thursday, January 29, 2009

Through a Glass Brightly

It’s been a busy week, not that I’m complaining. Although I do wish that when you have to correspond with producers in America they would appreciate the different time zones. Still it was my own bloody fault, starting off the conversation quite late in the day over here. Now that email has become communication’s tool of choice it’s better than the days when the fax machine would start squawking at one or two o’clock in the morning.

With everything going on, I haven’t had a chance to voice an opinion on the home stretch Battlestar Galactica, which looks like its all going to end in tears, the mind-boggling return of Lost or the arrival of Blown Deadline’s astonishing Iraq War drama Generation Kill. I suppose that pretty much gives the game away on where I stand when it comes to these dramas. Otherwise I pointlessly tried another episode of 24, because I’m obviously a bigger idiot than I initially thought, and have repeatedly tried to get beyond the first six minutes of BBC3’s Being Human without shouting, “Fuck off you useless cunts!” at the screen.

When there has been time free during the past couple of days, I’ve spent most of it writing longwinded replies to other folks’ blogs rather than come up something new here. The most recent one involved discussing science fiction films that look horribly dated. There may be more of that to come next month because the weekend has been set aside for a trip to Mister Mark’s where a bunch of us are going to immerse ourselves in a science fiction marathon, watching the great SF movies that the BBC used to show but now don’t. It may mean stepping on the rose-tinted glasses of our youth but these things have to be done.

Luckily these are the films from the 1950s and 60s, like Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, This Island Earth and Them. And though it may not fit the time period, just for the hell of it I think we’re starting off with The Amazing Screw-On Head to get us in the mood. The stories may be ropey in places, especially when it comes to the “science” parts, but one thing going for them is that these films haven’t dated as badly as many that followed in their path.

Forbidden Planet got it right, with Walter Plunkett’s costumes and Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan’s marvellous production design creating a look that wouldn’t diminish with time. Just over a decade later Kubrick took the same approach with 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if the date would ultimately work against him. But looking back on the “sci-fi” movies of the early to mid-1970s, with people wandering aimlessly about in highly impractical, brightly coloured clothes, it makes you wonder not only were the various filmmakers were thinking of but what they had taken to reach that decision.

Did anyone really think the future would be spent wandering aimlessly around pristine environments beneath a gigantic domed roof? HG Wells may have suggested that such a sterile environment was the shape of things to come, but it only really works, I suppose, if Jenny Agutter is around to get her kit off at various points in the proceedings. And at least it’s better than being chased through the fields by a bunch of marauding monkeys on horseback. Star Wars was fantasy, so really who gives a shit about that. Instead it wasn’t until Ridley Scott got behind the camera for Alien and Blade Runner, paying great attention to the art direction, that people started to take their view of the future seriously.

One thing that struck me when I first watched Blade Runner, which very rarely gets mentioned, is how natural light is put to use. In previous films the future was bright, Ridley Scott flicked the switch and made it gloomy. Audience members complained that if was always set at night, Scott countered that the darkness covered the cracks that the budget couldn’t stretch to fill. But I always saw it as an integral part of the story. Light was currency. Tyrell, atop his pyramid, couldn’t afford a real owl (unless none existed) but he did have the sunlight. In fact when Deckard has to conduct the Voight-Kampff empathy test on Rachel there is even too much light.

On street level it would obviously be a different story. The opening “Hades” shot suggested that the environment was seriously buggered by industry. But beyond that it’s a simple matter of how far sunlight could penetrate. I can remember being in New York on a late spring day, walking out of Times Square into one of the cross streets and going from being bathed in bright light into deep shadow, from warm to cold. If that can happen in contemporary times, in Scott’s extrapolation of a sprawling, futuristic Los Angeles, with towering edifices bunched close together, even without factoring the perpetually overcast sky into the equation, depending on the time of day and position of the sun natural light would barely register.

It was having this in mind that made me laugh out loud not only at Tim Burton’s depiction of Gotham City in the ludicrously awful Batman, but the film adaptation of Judge Dredd with its overly bright streets of Mega City One. Then again, that movie was so utterly bilious the lighting was the very least of its problems.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Schneer Magic

Without wanting to turn this into some sort of creepy obituary blog, it would be negligent of me not to also mention the passing of legendary film producer of Charles H. Schneer who passed away last Wednesday, aged 88. Obviously the kids today are going to say, “who he?” In which case, boy did you bunch of miscreants seriously miss out on something wonderful.

Serving in the US Army’s Signal Corps Photographic Unit during the Second World War, Schneer moved to Hollywood once hostilities and ceased and found a job at Columbia Pictures’ low-budget production unit. Having the idea for a film about a giant octopus that attacks San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, an old army buddy introduced him to a young stop motion animator called Ray Harryhausen. In fact It Came From Beneath the Sea was so low budget that the massive cephalopod, stirred into action by an H-bomb test out to sea, ended up with six tentacles rather than eight because of budget constraints.

The pair then collaborated on Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, co-written by the blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon, in which aliens intent on conquering the planet give Washington DC’s famous landmarks a pasting before they’re brought down by human ingenuity, and 20 Million Miles to Earth where a reptilian life-form brought back from Venus wreaks havoc in Rome. If the stories weren’t always up to much, those films became a perfect showcase for Harryhausen’s exceptional animation skills.

Following their success Schneer helped find the backing for a personal project of Harryhausen’s that he had been shopping around Hollywood with little success. Released in 1958, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the duo’s first film released in Dynamation, the name they had devised to describe their technique of combining stop-motion animation with live action photography. Their fantasy adventures, loosely inspired by The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, continued down the years with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, but the duo’s most celebrated production, and the finest proponent of Dynamation, has to be their take on Greek mythology and the quest for the golden fleece.

How do you explain the impact Jason and the Argonauts had to kiddies who have grown up in the warm digital embrace of computer generated animation? The scene where the giant bronze statue of Talos comes to life was astonishing enough – with the head slowly turning to stare down at the Argonauts before it steps down from the plinth, accompanied by the eeriest grating sound ever – but even more mind-blowing was the celebrated sword fight between Jason and his men and the seven skeleton warriors, brought to life from the teeth of the recently slain Hydra.

No wonder the film, more than any other, is said to have inspired a generation of filmmakers. While many have tried to equal it, like in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, even with modern technology at their disposal none have come remotely close to Harryhausen’s achievement. Because of his painstaking attention to detail the animation for that climatic duel alone is said to have taken four months to complete. The time set aside between the end of principal photography and the film’s eventual completion allowed Schneer to go off and produce other live action films while his partner was still hard at work, including Hellcats of the Navy starring Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, and even Half a Sixpence with Tommy Steele as Arthur Kipps.

I may not have rushed to watch the latter two, but the visual feasts Charles H. Schneer’s and Ray Harryhausen conjured by like a couple of wicked little magicians played a big role in my viewing habits as a youth, either making up part those long gone science fiction and fantasy film seasons screened on the BBC or as a solo effort that became the perfect antidote for a wet Saturday afternoon, taking the audience away to another time and place.

As his obituary in the The New York Times mentions:

A hands-on producer, Mr. Schneer contributed enthusiastically to the story lines of his films, Mr. Harryhausen said on Monday. He scoured the papers for accounts of the paranormal, of which there was no shortage in the 1950s. He accompanied his crews on location, and at least once helped stave off an embarrassing anachronism.

The film was Jason and the Argonauts, shot on the Italian coast. In one scene, the script called for Jason’s ship, the Argo, to sail around a bluff and into view. But as the cameras rolled, to everyone’s astonishment, Sir Francis Drake’s galleon the Golden Hind sailed by instead. It had been launched by a British film crew also shooting in the area.

As Mr. Harryhausen recalled in an article he wrote for The Guardian in 2003, Mr. Schneer rose to the occasion at once. “Get that ship out of here!” he cried. “You’re in the wrong century.”

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mentioned In Passing

Amongst the stories that made the news on screen and in print over the past couple weeks, some monumental, others barely managing to scrape above trivial, were the rapid succession of celebrity deaths. First Patrick McGoohan was gone, followed in quick succession by Ricardo Montalban, Sir John Mortimer and then Tony Hart.

Never a fan of The Prisoner and too young for Danger Man, what I always remember McGoohan for is his absolute paddy on the US nuclear submarine in Ice Station Zebra. Montalban was forever KHAAANNNN! and the closest I got to John Mortimer’s work was his adaptation of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Tony Hart though, from his days on Vision On through to Take Hart, was a big part of my childhood.

As a kiddie, if I didn’t have my head stuck in a book I’d usually be lying on the living room carpet with a pad of paper, pencils and crayons, happily whiling away the time drawing and later painting, spurred on by his boundless enthusiasm. That part of my life carried on until the three years at The Esteemed School of Art sucked all the interest out of it and I’ve rarely picked up a pencil since.

While the deaths of this quartet made headlines, it was only when I sat down with The Sunday Times’ News Review section yesterday that I discovered Kathleen Byron had passed away on the same day as Tony Hart. Having not bothered with any broadsheets earlier in the week because they were either filled with news about the economy’s further side into the toilet or the imminent inauguration, I’d missed the obituary notice and if she had been mentioned on a TV bulletin I hadn’t seen it. Still, her death should have been worth a mention.

Her name, alas, may not be instantly recognisable even though she worked steadily on stage and screen for over six decades, making one of her last film appearances in Saving Private Ryan as the mother who receives the news of her sons’ deaths. After appearing in a number of wartime shorts produced by the Crown Film Unit, her career began with a quartet of films by the legendary partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

In The Silver Fleet she played a Dutch schoolmistress, impressing upon her pupils the tale of a heroic 17th-century countryman who led a naval resistance against the Spanish. Three years later she was cast as an officious yet ultimately sympathetic angel in the classic A Matter of Life and Death, giving some latitude to Bob Trubshawe as he waits in heaven for David Niven’s Peter Carter. Finally, in The Small Back Room, released in 1949, she appeared as the devoted sweetheart of David Farrar’s alcoholic bomb-disposal expert.

Between the two Byron played what would be perhaps the defining role of her career, as Sister Ruth, opposite Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons and Farrar in the erotically charged Black Narcissus. To say too much about the tale of religious devotion and repressed sexuality in a remote Himalayan convent would give away the story. Filmed, remarkably, on a Pinewood soundstage, with location filming only going as far as a tropical garden in Kent for exterior jungle scenes, Jack Cardiff’s unparalleled cinematography and Byron’s performance created some of the most sexually intense scenes in film history.

Even though these early roles suggested that significant parts in future films should have been hers for the taking, ultimately many eluded her once the performance as Sister Ruth coupled with playing Verite Faimont, Margaret Lockwood’s romantic rival in Charles Bennett’s Madness of the Heart, led to her losing out to typecasting. If she never became as well known as her many of her contemporaries, like Kerr who had previously appeared in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, she never took a cynical view of the business.

Almost all the obituaries noted that she and the director continued their relationship off screen, picking up on a passage from Michael Powell’s Million Dollar Movie, the second part of his sterling autobiography in which he writes about Byron pulling a gun on him:

It was a revolver, a big one, US army issue, and it was loaded. A naked woman and a loaded gun are persuasive objects, and I have always thought that I deserved congratulations for talking myself out of that one.

Byron calmly dismissed the anecdote as a flight of fancy on his part, admitting that she was scared of guns and certainly far too modest to brandish one starkers. Meanwhile the obituary in The Daily Telegraph summed up her appeal by concluding:

Kathleen Byron, or simply Byron, as some friends called her, played hussies when nice girls weren't supposed to do so, when women were simply supposed to hanker after a band of gold and children miraculously born without sex playing a part in it. Her roles told the truth about human relationships before much of Britain was ready to listen and her career suffered as a result.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Rank File

So the Academy Award nominations were rolled out a few days back and really, I don’t much care about them anymore. Now that the whole rigmarole has become so politicized, I mean who really gives a shit? The best value comes about now, just after the shortlists are announced and before the glitz and glamour smothers everything, when the real bitching and moaning kicks in.

To begin with there are always the glaring omissions that everyone barks about. This year, for some extraordinary reason, most everyone is yapping their trap off about The Dark Knight not getting a Best Picture nomination. Obviously there’s a very simple reason for that: it’s not a great film. It may have aspired to blend Heat with the superhero movie but it went on too long, going two or three moral dilemmas too far. By that time I had already got the point they were trying to make, thrice over, and simply wanted to go home.

As for what made the shortlist, I suppose they’re as good as any. I’ve heard great things said about them and bad and already seen the two of the five that I wanted to see. Oddly enough, while Frost/Nixon had its moments, I actually preferred reading Peter Morgan’s script beforehand to eventually watching Ron Howard’s film. In the case of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I liked the script by Eric Roth and loved what Fincher did with it. Even if it misses out on all three of those awards, which I doubt, it has to pick up the statuette for Best Visual Effects.

For once the Best Picture and Best Director nominations match up. I think it was Sir Ridley Scott who, either in a some interview or on one of his DVD commentaries, expressed a sense of confused disbelief that a film could be nominated without the director getting the nod also or the director being up without his film getting a look in, because the two should surely go hand in hand. Then again, much like the American elections, this is a process that doesn’t always seem to make much sense.

At least when it comes to the acting categories they aren’t always allied to the bigger pictures, rightly pointing out performances in films that weren’t rolled out with the same amount of hoopla. That said, the first name that really leapt out of the lists was Robert Downey Jr., getting a Best Supporting Actor nod for playing the Method-obsessed Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder. Obviously he won’t be expected to win because “you people” will no doubt bestow the award posthumously in a one of the ceremony’s requisite lachrymose-soaked moments. Still, just seeing his name there was enough to have me doubled over with laughter.

Having eventually regained my composure it was time to see who else made the cut. This is where it always gets interesting because there’s the mix of already well-known faces amongst actors who have worked for a long time in the trenches finally getting the high profile visibility they so richly deserve. Of course their sudden ascension proves somewhat tricky in terms of reportage. The hacks can’t just simply blurt out names like Brad and Angelina, Meryl and Kate, and expect a skim through the old clippings files the picture desk to do the rest, or feast on some newly discovered starlet, spewing hyperbole while all the time hoping that in a flash the paparazzi can snatch some snatch.

Instead they have to go about introducing these people to a wider audience. Hopefully most of them went about it in a far more respectful way than the cheese scribbling about the “unknowns invited to [the] Oscar party” on the BBC news website. Now I hate to be ragging on them twice in less than a week. I keep this up and folk will think I write for The Daily Mail. But you can’t let them get away with:

The vast majority of people, though, would have trouble picking Melissa Leo out of a line-up.

Yet somehow this 48-year-old New Yorker now stands beside them on the Oscar shortlist, having been nominated for best actress for her role in the independent film Frozen River.

The eagle-eyed spotted her promise a year ago when this atmospheric tale of a cash-strapped single mother turned reluctant human trafficker premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Even so, some will be surprised to see such a relatively unsung talent shortlisted for such a high-profile award.

To begin with I thought that maybe I was misinterpreting the tone of the piece until I hit this sweet spot. Whereas the “Yet somehow...” simply rankled, that last sentence made me want to find this dumb turdsmith and smash their unless face into a pile of glass shards until their brain is gelatine confetti. I doubt it would be a great loss. Obviously this is someone with absolutely no fucking inclination to watch quality drama, who doesn’t know that Melissa Leo played Det. Sgt. Kay Howard in the first five seasons of Homicide: Life on the Streets. Jesus-fucking-Christ! They probably have it in their head that good TV is Merlin.

At least it’s pointed out that Richard Jenkins played Nathaniel Fisher in Six Feet Under, checking out in the pilot episode when the company hearse is centrepunched by a Metro Bus. Still I remember him more from David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster, partnered with Josh Brolin’s armpit-licking cop and accidentally drugged up, running around the desert in just his underpants long before Bryan Cranston appeared on the scene in Breaking Bad.

Hopefully, come the night, one of the other, or any of the other “rank and file” will get to step up onto the stage. Oh, and Wall-E better win Best Animated Feature and the Best Sound categories.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Making a Killing

As arts magazine shows go, I always have great problems with BBC2’s The Culture Show. It’s not that the sometime artys-fartsy subjects they broach make me want to stick my head into a bucket of liquid nitrogen and then head-butt a moose, but the “key talent” involved: Mark Kermode and Lauren Laverne.

Watching the pair on screen always reminds me of Peter Cook’s celebrated One Leg Too Few sketch. If you need a reminder it’s the one where Cook is a theatrical agent and Dud plays Mr Spiggott, a one-legged actor coming in to audition for the role of Tarzan. It ends with Cookie saying:

“Your right leg I like. I like your right leg. It's a lovely leg for the role. That’s what I said when I saw it come in. I said, "A lovely leg for the role." I've got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is -- neither have you.”

Mark Kermode, obviously the “right leg” in this analogy, I have a lot of time for. He knows what he’s talking about and makes for a genial presenter. While Kermode joins the ranks of the knowledgeable media commentators and cultural historians I was talking about previously, Laverne, with her creepy dead doll’s eyes, is just another of the gormless non-entities who will happily guzzle down the fiery contents of Satan’s ball bag and spit back a few pedestrian phrases if it means getting their face on the TV.

I’m sure she’s a lovely girl in real life but on the box she’s the kind of useless media whore who I only want to see on television having a fistful of angry soldier ants rammed up her vagina while a drugged-up orang-utan with an angle grinder goes to work of her. Which means having to watch her on The Culture Show is a necessary evil akin to root canal surgery through the rectum.

Tuesday night’s edition I had to catch because, according to the Radio Times listing, it featured a piece on The Wire’s writer-producer Ed Burns, talking about his and David Simon’s recent HBO drama Generation Kill. Of course being The Culture Show it turned out to be something altogether different. When Simon was interviewed on the show last summer, instead of a straightforward Q&A it had to be turned into a cringingly embarrassing interrogation, with The Wire’s co-creator being “accused of breaking the laws of writing for TV.”

This time Burns got off easier than his collaborator as the segment was prefaced with “The Culture show asked writer and producer Ed Burns to give us a masterclass in making kick-ass TV!” Burns’ began his guide to writing drama with KNOW YOUR SUBJECT, saying:

“You make a film for the person or persons who you are depicting. So in The Wire we were making the film for the addicts, the cops - that’s our audience. In Generation Kill it was for the marines.

“The trick here is to have something that this particular audience will identify with and that becomes a permission slip. In The Wire when Bubbles took a cop who was going undercover and the cop was very proud of the fact that he had scruffed down his beard and done all these things. But to the expert, to the junkie, that’s not enough.

(They illustrate this with the clip from The Wire’s first season episode, The Buys, where Sydnor arrives in the Detail Room dressed down as a junkie and Bubs talks about needing to have the “dead soldiers” ground into the soles of his sneakers to show he has walked the alleys looking to make a buy).

“These little tidbits gives it such authenticity that the bigger drama becomes even more significant because you can believe who these people are.”

Following this he talks about casting for shows, referencing both The Wire and Generation Kill, and how to tell a story that “doesn’t become stereotyped or demeaning to the people you’re writing about.” Between the two comes, NEVER EXPLAIN – "Say it once and move on". In total the segment lasts roughly six minutes, but it’s a valuable six minutes.

The episode is available on iPlayer until next Tuesday, although actually with Friday night’s extended repeat it’ll actually be up until the end of next week. Preceding Burns’ spot is a piece on Skin Deep, Armando Iannucci’s opera about plastic surgery, and an interview with Roberto Saviano, the writer of Gomorrah. If you want to skip straight to Burns he appears on screen around the 19-minute mark.

Oddly, if you read the accompanying programme info, Generation Kill, which begins on the FX Channel this Sunday at 10:00pm, is “a raw account of the war in Iraq as seen from the inside of an American tank” when instead it actually follows the US Marine Corps’ First Recon Battalion through the initial forty days of the Iraq War. So, whoever at the BBC wrote that blurb needs to have WANKER! tattooed on their forehead. Which means no change there then.

Shock And Awe

No, this isn’t about yesterday’s inauguration of Super Barack. I caught part of it, including Aretha Franklin getting the words to God Save the Queen wrong before the swearing-in ceremony and Elizabeth Alexander’s rather unusual “poem” after it. As a pal on facebook wrote, “The only way for her to have followed Obama’s speech would’ve been to put on some kind of Tijuana show with a donkey and the surviving members of The Beatles.” Which I guess was one way of summing it up.

Anyway, good luck and God bless to the guy. There’s a steaming great mountain of shit left behind, both at home and abroad, by the idiot that has just been given his marching orders that he’ll have to roll up his shirtsleeves and dig his way through before everyone can see a brighter future. With that in mind, if I was in his shoes I’d hit every inaugural ball and get absolutely shit-faced before settling down behind that desk tomorrow.

Of course the day didn’t turn out well for everybody. Anyone who crowded into The Mall expecting Super Barack to walk across the surface of the reflecting pool once he had delivered his speech obviously went home disappointed. Worse, senator Ted Kennedy collapsed at an inaugural luncheon. According to the BBC news website

A congressional aide said Mr Kennedy had been evacuated by medical staff, apparently suffering from convulsions.

That’s got to be not only painful but embarrassing for Kennedy unless they moved his to a private room and rather off-putting for anyone hoping to finish their meal. (Anyone who has seen the opening episode of The Wire’s fifth season will obviously understand what I’m getting at).

That aside, the seriously big news for merry old England was the return of Battlestar Galactica on Sky One. From the 2003 miniseries that served as a backdoor pilot, through to the current fourth season, the show has grown into a giant amongst pygmies in the dwindling landscape of television drama. For anyone still unsure of its merits, Sometimes a Great Notion, the first of the final ten episodes, sealed the deal without question.

As one utterly shocking revelation followed another and everyone and everything started to fall apart, rather than fall back on hysterical empty spectacle to carry the story on as the show’s competition is prone to do, the episode once again relied on William Faulkner’s adage that the only subject worth writing about was “the human heart in conflict with itself”.

Obviously few specifics can be mentioned in plain sight before some little weasel starts banging their fists against their temples and screaming, “No fair!” But just how beautiful were those simple, virtually wordless reveals expressed by the various characters, whether it was Roslin unable to face the Galactica’s crew, then later silently burning the scriptures, Leoben backing away from Starbuck after their shared grim discovery on the planet surface, or the look in Dualla’s eyes as she co-pilots the Raptor, deciding that in the face of such hopelessness to make do with one more perfect day?

If you like science fiction and are past the age of worrying whether you’ve got your homework done on time, you really should be watching this show. If you’re passing on it and instead simply watching the more obvious home grown genre programmes then you urgently need to go look in a mirror, finally admit to yourself that you’re a gormless fucktard who exists on the same intellectual level of a monkey throwing faeces, and grow the fuck up. It’s really that’s simple.

If my artless badgering isn’t enough to get you on board, Variety recently rounded up a number of commentators to give their opinions about Battlestar Galactica and sing its praises in the lead up to its return to the SciFi Channel last week. They make for an interesting read, especially since all together the people chosen actually have an intimate knowledge of the ideologies that the drama expertly weaves together.

It certainly makes for a far more refreshing change from the approach usually taken in this country when it comes to discussing media-related subject matters; hauling in someone hopelessly unqualified to talk on a given topic, rather than going to the handful of very knowledgeable media commentators and cultural historians like Christopher Cook and the BFI’s Dick Fiddy, who should actually be one of the first ports of call when an article or television segment needs a talking head to drop in a react quote.

After you’re done with the Variety piece, if you want to know more about last night’s episode then head straight over to the great Maureen Ryan’s TV blog for her interview with series creator Ronald D. Moore, along with comments from the episode’s writers, David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, and Sometimes a Great Notion’s director Michael Nankin. If you haven’t watched either the series or this specific episode, obviously don’t go there. You’ll learn things you shouldn’t know yet, get all worked up, and I’m not coming to change you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Tell-Tale Told

Whether you were celebrating Martin Luther King Day or Dubyah’s last official hours in office, yesterday was the bicentenary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth. For many Poe is known for his tales of the macabre. My first introduction to his work was through the lurid Roger Corman-produced adaptations of The Fall of the House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death, scripted by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, and all starring Vincent Price.

After reading The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart, each told from the murder’s point of view, I came to what was for me Poe’s significant works. With The Murders in the Rue Morgue, first published in 1841, Poe introduced his readership to what is considered to be the first work of detective fiction as opposed to mystery fiction. In C. Auguste Dupin, who investigates the inexplicable brutal slayings of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Poe laid down the template for the great amateur detective.

Like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and everyone else who would follow, Dupin’s interest in the case would not be for any monetary gain but simply because the mysterious circumstances of the crime piqued his interest and solving the conundrum was an amusement to him. In that first tale and both The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter, which appeared in print over the next few years, Poe established the first-person narration by a close ally, the blundering police officials that would ultimately become a foil for the detective, and, most importantly, the literary device of announcing the solution to the crime before working backwards to establish the mechanics behind the evildoing.

All these tropes would soon become familiar in the years that followed. With this is mind there should have been something on last night to celebrate this wonderful dark beginning. Instead there was the final part of Hunter. This might have been interesting because it featured Hugh Bonneville and wonderful Janet McTeer reprising their roles from Gwyneth Hughes’ 2007 crime drama Five Days. Except the pair were wasted in a tale that pretty much brushed over their characters in favour of an average seen-it-all-before procedural that featured a trio of idiotic Pro-Life killers.

Frankly I would have preferred to watch two hours of Bonneville’s DSI Iain Barclay indulging in his love of astronomy – the drama’s title referring to his favourite constellation of Orion – and McTeer’s faintly sozzled DS Amy Foster lounging in the bath. In the comments a few posts back, when I was mouthing off about Linda La Plante’s utterly rancid Under Suspicion, The Wonderful Woo said

“What's the point in a crime thriller when the perp is obvious from halfway through part one? That's two hours I won't get back. Should we have a two-year moratorium on any cop shows?”

Obviously Hunter had been made before her announcement and slipped in under the wire, but isn’t she absolutely right about this? At the moment it seems that the only real locked room mystery is how the writer inside is allowed to come up with carbon copy junk like this.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Recycle Of Tyranny

Religion and politics. Right there are two subjects it’s best to keep the fuck away from discussing, wouldn’t you say? Open your mouth on either one, or both, of these two and you’re sure to rile someone. Maybe I should keep my trap shut on this occasion but, off the internet for most of the past couple days and with my head buried in newspapers instead, my gorge has pretty much risen about as far as it will go.

Surely everyone would agree that the past three weeks has shown an utterly disgraceful turn of events in the Middle East. Over 1200 killed by the bombings and shellings. Hospitals targeted and a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school hit by shells, killing young children. Worse white phosphorus shells, banned from being used where civilians may be harmed, have been fired into the heavily populated Gaza Strip. How many Palestinian militants did the Israelis get unloading all that ordnance?

I find it astonishing that Western government still let the Israelis get away with murder. Maybe the West stays relatively quiet because there are too many skeletons rattling in the corridors of power’s closets when it comes to dealing with the Middle East? In the last century alone the absolute clusterfuck the region has become wasn’t helped by the post-World War I League of Nations mandates that divided up the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The partition of Palestine by the United Nations in 1947 probably didn’t make things better either, and we’re still living with the toxic fallout.

Luckily now there’s a ceasefire in place, co-incidentally just as Bush packs away his colouring books and leaves office. Is there the outside possibility that once President-elect Obama steps into his inaugural phone box and Super Barack flies out he’ll have the balls to tell Israel to knock this shit off and quit acting like a bunch of cunty bullies? How many more breaks should they be given? How many more times should they be allowed to play the Holocaust card to shame people into withdrawing criticism and backing down?

By all means go ahead and call me an ignorant buffoon who has absolutely no understanding of the region and the people there. You’re probably right. But the one thought still rattling around in my head is, is this now a symptom of the cycle of abuse, where those who were abused come to victimise another party? In which case, does that mean the Nazis won?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Twenty-Four Seven

Speaking of not giving a damn about authenticity, how about that two-part opener of 24’s seventh season a few nights back? Even before it had been delayed by last year’s WGA strike, I’d pretty much given up on the show. I’m still not too sure why I’m back watching it, because once again these initial episodes deftly illustrated that while the show continues to play to its strengths, it still hasn’t fixed the nagging weaknesses.

The first series had its faults, but then it was still finding its feet and the “real-time” concept was intriguing enough to see how it ultimately played out. Because the show started with only a thirteen-episode commitment, the story was pretty much wrapped by the halfway point. When it finally got the back eleven the story dithered around with the amnesiac wife subplot before it eventually got it together, bringing in Dennis Hopper and filling him with hot lead.

In the closing minutes of the first season the producers then made the right decision in killing of Jack Bauer’s wife, who was by now superfluous. It’s a shame they couldn’t have flushed the useless daughter away as well. Looking back on the various seasons, which over time seem to have blended into each other, the second year is always remembered not for whatever the heck the main story was – although it probably involved a suitcase nuke – but as the one where the idiot girl gets terrorised by the cougar in a nonsensical subplot.

By then it was probably a good time to give up but episodes of the third season started arriving every week as part of a bundle of preview tapes, so I ploughed on. Although Day Three had, if I remember rightly, a jail riot and the viral attack on the downtown LA hotel amongst all the ongoing shenanigans, what sticks in my mind is the fire axe used in the last episode. What should have built up to a dramatic climax felt so over the top that all I remember is howling with laughter and reaching for the rewind button.

After that I borrowed the DVD boxset of season four, which is probably the best way to watch this kind of show. When the fifth year rolled around I watched the opening episodes, missed out the whole middle section and then returned for the last couple of hours to see how it all turned out. Because it ended with Bauer nabbed by the Chinese in a final twist that was the impetus for coming back for the next year. With the opening rather flat, I gave it a couple more episodes before finally throwing in the towel.

By then it was obvious that the season would be a grab bag of shady foreigners looking to blow the hell out of something big, dodgy dealings in the corridors of power, turncoats and traitors lurking in every corner, that in the right combination can make for a great thriller. It was also obvious that rather than driving forward with a taut plot, each season would be dragged into the mire by flabby subplots and unnecessary characters, one or more of whom would be the sort of bleeding-heart liberals that need to be taken out and given a slapping they wouldn’t forget.

Even worse, because each episode required a cliffhanger ending, this contrivance meant some plot turns needed certain characters to either be dumb or do dumb things in the lead up to the final seconds ticking down. Once or twice you could let them get away with it, but it seemed to become such a regular occurrence that after a while you just wanted to see each particular ass-clown get disembowelled with a bulldog clip so they would stop fucking up the story.

Watching on Monday, obviously I missed some big changes, what with CTU closed down. I don’t know what happened there, where they bombed out? I suppose it could have been that the accounts department finally got around to totting up the overtime slips and went ballistic. It wasn’t that people went through a day without eating, sleeping or taking a bathroom break that left me scratching my head. It was that the Counter Intelligence staffers never ended their shift and clocked off. Didn’t anyone have a home to go to, or had it been nuked an hour or so earlier?

Still, the senate hearing with Bauer being questioned about his dubious ways of intelligence gathering was quite an interesting start. Especially since the one thing 24 was really good at was upping the ante on the torture sequences, practised first by Bauer until it looked like everyone was doing it. Unfortunately around the same time the audience was introduced to the new leader of the free world. Oh, dear.

Obviously with David Palmer in the opening seasons they had already done the black president. After the evil Nixon lookie-likie from a couple years back, now we get a milksop female president and the streak of paralysed piss in a suit she calls a husband. We’re expected to believe the public voted for her? Really? What was the alternative, a rotten turnip in an empty bag of Monster Munch? She looked like she couldn’t find her way to the weekly knitting circle let alone run the country. If there’s going to be a weak like to this series, there they are: exhibit A and B.

I suppose I may tune in for the next episode, but I’m still in two minds about it. After all, the way things were going in the first couple of hours I’m thinking that, as far as I’m concerned, 24 has had its day.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Inexact Differrentials

For all the hard work put in, sometimes dramas don’t get the props they deserve. When I interviewed Anthony Horowitz, long before Simon Shaps became ITV’s idiot Director of Programmes, his pleasure that Foyle’s War had won the Lew Grade Audience Award at the recent BAFTA Television Awards was tempered with the telling off the show had received for using a Mk VIII Supermarine Spitfire from 1943 in an episode set in 1940.

More recently, the BBC’s adaptation of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, shown over the Christmas holiday, has come under fire for using a 1924 Morris Oxford and a 1927 Wolseley for the car chase across the Scottish wilds, especially since the drama is set on the eve of The Great War. Whereas Horowitz explained that, with most of few remaining airworthy Spitfires in private hands, “You make do with what you can get,” Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s new Controller of Drama Commissioning has gone on the record to say that period drama doesn’t have to be strictly accurate.

In an article by Anita Singh in The Daily Telegraph, Stephenson admits that as far as he is concerned period drama does not have to be strictly accurate. Further mistakes in the Buchan drama included Hannay living in an Art Deco apartment building even before being strafed by a single-seater Royal Aircraft Factory SE5A bi-plane that didn’t enter service on the Western Front until mid-1917, but according to Stephenson:

“We take the feedback on board but, for me, the purpose of drama is to entertain, not to be slavish about detail. I think that absolute dedication to perfect detail is something for a documentary and not something for a drama.

“It's different with something like The Diary of Anne Frank, because that's a true story. At the end of the day, the story of The 39 Steps is quite far-fetched. The question is: for the seven million people who watched it, did it feel authentic, did it create a sense of period? The 39 Steps just isn't a realistic story, in the way that Spooks isn't typical 21st century London. We were creating a realistic world within a world - a world of damsels and heroes and a huge amount of excitement. That, for me, is the priority. Did it create that world? It absolutely did.”

To a degree he has a point. It’s only when you fail to engage with a drama and don’t get caught up in the action that you notice any flaws, like a German U-Boat surfacing in a freshwater loch, for Chrissakes!! But where do you draw the line? Given that Stephenson considers Buchan’s story “far-fetched”, would it matter if Scudder’s coded messages were on a USB Flash drive rather than in a notebook, or is that taking it too far?

Since this new Controller of Drama Commissioning doesn’t appear to give a shit about authenticity, should we fear upcoming dramas? Especially if their content might even insult the intelligence of the CBeebies’ audience.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Saturday Night Titty Talk

I woke up late his morning with a very fuzzy head. How did that happen? When did I become such a pathetic lightweight? Yes, it had been the actress’ surprise birthday party last night but over the course of the evening I had drank a flute of champagne, a small bottle of particularly refreshing raspberry-flavoured lemonade, and then a glass of water. It wasn’t what I would describe as a particularly heavy night by any standards.

Still it was a perfect evening. Of course it would have been better if First Capital Connect was running trains through London on the weekend. Heaven forbid such a convenience like that should happen. Rather than getting the overground from here straight to Blackfriars and then simply walking the rest of the way to the venue, numerous buses and tube trains had to be factored into the travel arrangements. Given how unreliable they can be at the best of times, I left early only to be pleasantly surprised by how easily I made each connection.

We had been asked not to be late after all. Walking up out of St Paul’s tube station onto the street still afforded me time to gaze at Wren’s masterpiece. With a portion of the north side surrounded by scaffold wreathed in a white plastic skin it looked uncannily like the cathedral was just in the final stages of being sculpted out of a large block of Portland stone. Walking the few blocks to the venue I fell in with relatives of the actress who had specially come over from America. Just before we turned off into the relevant side street a cab pulled up and out sprang her agent who promptly roped me into helping put up the decorations.

There are always surprise parties where the recipient has an inkling of something being afoot. In this instance the Birthday Girl didn’t have a clue. Her children had disappeared for the day, probably using the excuse they were out with friends. While we were standing outside having a brief gasper, her husband admitted he had been out all day, ostensibly at a football match that didn’t actually take place until today. Meanwhile the Birthday Girl was expecting to simply be a guest at a film technicians’ awards banquet.

If there was one downside to the event it was that to keep it a surprise the agent and everyone organising the event had to lie to her. In an industry filled with more rancid, thoroughly unpleasant people that you can shake a stick at, the Birthday Girl was one of the thoroughly decent individuals. She wasn’t one of the dreadful Norma Desmonds-in-waiting types that both Mister Mark and I have had brushes with in the past. Instead she was one of the nice guys. So even if she wasn’t particularly thrilled about spending her Saturday night the way she was expecting to, she buckled up and honoured the commitment nonetheless. Which was lucky for everyone, I guess.

Escorting her to the “event” was our good pal H. The worry, especially from his wife, who was already at the venue, was that he hated lying to anyone and hopefully wouldn’t cave under pressure and give the game away. Like the good soldier he is, H kept his nerve and didn’t blather too much to make her at all suspicious. With the layout of the venue virtually split in two by a double-sided bar, we held our breath in one half while she entered the other. The dimmed lighting gave her a moment to pause but H led the way and the manageress welcomed them in before close to one hundred people yelled, “Surprise!” Thankfully this wasn’t followed by a brief silence and a loud thud.

Guessing who would be amongst the invited, I went double-packed with cigarettes in both my overcoat and jacket pockets. Amongst various actresses invited, a few I had first met back when we produced a promotional B2B DVD. Prior to one interview we had opted for the lapel mic rather than the boom. Attempting to clip it onto her jacket the little sucker sprang from my fingers and disappeared into her rather impressive cleavage, whereupon she thrust her chest forward, inviting me to fish it out.

After that auspicious introduction, whenever our paths crossed we would scoot outside to spark up and catch up. This night was no different, except she had come without, relying on me to provide the necessary toxins. So did another actress I had one met in passing. With the cold just bearable for one smoke before everyone had to dash back inside, and joined by a designer friend I hadn’t seen in ages, on our second venture outside conversation turned to how irritated they were that their breasts had naturally enlarged over recent years. From my perspective things didn’t look that bad. Still, I dutifully listened to their concerns, glad that it saved me from talking like a tit.

To keep the theme going, the next time around we were joined by a young slip of a thing who was already building a decent screen career even if she looked like she should be home waiting on the results of her mock GCSE exams. She had recently turned down a role in an upcoming British comedy horror movie that is apparently generating some buzz and wondered if she had done the right thing. If she had played a lesbian vampire, the director had wanted to film her in such a way that the audience sees everything.

Her objection was that it was too early in her career to head down that path. I just stopped myself from giving her my email address to inform me when the time was right. Since the young lass also had a second career in wrestling she pulled out some gizmo and showed us her one of her more recent matches. Even with the butt mashed into the pavement by then and the wind chilling me to the bone it was worth staying out until the final smackdown. Interestingly the opponents wear some rather exotic lingerie in the ring.

Back indoors, after a specially created montage of the Birthday Girl’s best on-screen moments was screened to cheers and applause and everyone had eaten a slice of the kind of sumptuous chocolate birthday cake that starts hardening arteries with the first bite, the evening still had more surprises to come. One of the guests was a classically trained lyric spinto soprano. After handing the Birthday Girl a flute of champagne and raising her own in toast she launched into an extraordinary rendition of Libiamo ne’ lieti calici, otherwise known as the “drinking song” from Verdi’s La Traviata.

Conversations in the room dried up as everyone turned to listen. Standing a couple of feet away, facing this relatively slender, youthful singer and watch her entrancing, impromptu performance was simply jaw dropping. Afterwards I was talking to her about opera. Possibly Austrian from her accent, tall and with long blonde hair, it seemed quite right that the conversation turned to Wagner.

The Soprano had recently auditioned for a role in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and was delighted that I had seen it, though less so when I admitted it was at the ENO. Curious to know how it sounded translated into English, of course I had no comparison. Der Ring des Nibelungen was what she was aiming for, and frankly I could see her as a perfect Brünnhilde. When she bemoaned it was such a long production with so much to learn I came so close to directing her towards Chuck Jones’ What’s Opera Doc? But then I realized such an admission would make me look a fool so I let the thought drift away.

When it was time to go I managed to say my goodbyes to half the people I knew before being was dragged outside by the designer to spark up for one last time, which then meant having to go back inside again. With the full moon floating like an ivory balloon above the large dome of St Paul’s I set of home. The final surprise of the night came after I’d come through the door and glanced at the clock after hanging up my overcoat. How exactly had it taken two whole hours to get home?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Uncomfortably Numb

Damn, it’s cold! I don’t know what the exact temperatures are here but they’re at the point where the first intake of breath taken outdoors feels like cold steel slicing through your lungs as it cuts its way into your chest. It didn’t help getting an email from the Delightful LA Actress sending blessings from Sunny California, reminding me of the time spent riding out Christmas and the New Year in Burbank.

Midweek I was hoping the weather would improve simply because tomorrow there’s a surprise birthday party for an actress friend at a venue in The City and the dress code is cocktail attire. If it was fancy dress that wouldn’t be so bad because I could go as an Eskimo, bundled up and keeping toasty. In a suit, which I only just remembered to get back from the dry cleaners, I’m probably going to freeze to death. Then again, it’s still better than being swaddled in taffeta.

Mulling over what to get her as a present, I simply opted for a decent bottle of champagne, which has its uses even if it might show a lack of thought. Since my brain is freezing over, I think I deserve a break on that front. Putting it in the fridge it bumped against a bog-standard bottle to Moet & Chandon that has been there for close to twenty years now.

It was a going away present from the staff at the animation studio I left before heading off on my Grand Tour of the United States. Because they were a decent bunch of people, and the director was one of the best people I’ve worked with, I decided to drink it only on a special occasion. Except, so far that time hasn’t come.

I’d seen my name in print and on screen already by then so it wasn’t so much a novelty anymore in the years following. Among the loves that I’ve lost, instances like the Christmas in LA with one girlfriend or celebrated a New Year with another took us away from home so it wasn’t accessible. Although, perhaps I should have popped the cork when I finally rid myself of a couple of old girls.

It stayed on the shelf while both my thirtieth and then fortieth birthday came and went. So, when do I eventually open it? Maybe, when summer comes, I should stroll up the hillside and down it watching a particularly spectacular sunset. Otherwise I imagine it’s going to remain where it is for some time to come.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Self. Centred

When I was younger, much, much younger than today, and growing up in the Westcountry, after a hard day I’d relax by waiting until long after nightfall and stepping out into the garden or the fields (depending on where we were living at the time), tilt my head back and lose myself looking up at the stars. It’s a remarkably relaxing experience, and one I suggest everyone should try.

With so much light pollution in the city knocking out everything but the brightest of stars, there isn’t really much to see. Not only that but when the sky is clear and the night is crisp, giving a better view, standing out and the pavement and looking up usually means that anyone walking past gives me a wide berth and a puzzled look. So instead I stay indoors, kick back and browse through HubbleSite.

It’s the perfect antidote for pretty much everything. Especially yesterday when I was pissed about the current state of television drama. You know, I wish I could get all warm and fuzzy about Doctor Who or Primeval or Merlin or Demons or Casualty, Holby City and the rest of all the stinking crap made by clock-watching fucktards. But since I’m not a registered drooling retard, there’s no way that can happen. And I still think anyone who bigs up these trivial little nonsenses while eschewing the far better, more thought-provoking dramas should be beaten around the face and neck with a two-by-four until their head is loose enough to be kicked clean off.

So with that roiling around in my head, I flicked though the images on the Hubble pages until I found this:

click to seriously enlarge

This is the centre of the Milky Way. Combining the sharp imaging of NICMOS, the Hubble Space Telescope's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, which penetrates the intervening dust clouds obscuring the galactic core, with colour imagery from the Infrared Astronomy Camera from a previous Spitzer Space Telescope survey, the image reveals massive stars and new details in complex structures in the hot ionized gas swirling around the central 300 light-years.

Revel in its beauty and then read more about it here.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Plodding Along

The past couple of evenings I found myself watching Lynda La Plante’s two-part serial killer drama Under Suspicion. Why, I’m not actually too sure? Maybe because it was just too damn freaking cold to go out and kick a pensioner down the street or snap a puppy in half.

I suppose it made a change from her two regular lumpy turds, The Commander and Trial & Retribution, splashing into the ITV schedule with the kind of regularity embraced only by the La Plante retirement fund. But if Under Suspicion was meant to be something different, it stumbled badly right off the bat. I don’t know if Kelly Reilly was cast in a lead role because she had played the younger version of Helen Mirren’s character in 2001’s Last Orders, but her presence only reinforced that the drama as a whole came across as a really vapid version of Prime Suspect, only with the kind of swearing that would have been untenable when Mirren first appeared as the ballsy DCI Jane Tennison.

Maybe it’s just that I’m getting tired of the kind of cop dramas with remarkably straightforward stories. Once everyone relies heavily on forensic scientists poking around a bloated corpse and comes up with the DNA match the party is pretty much over. It reminds me of the story written by Danny De Vito’s character in Throw Momma from the Train, which, if I remember rightly, has two guys in a room and one of them is a corpse. What happened to a whole raft of characters that were all under suspicion? It doesn’t mean it has to take place in a country house with the killer unmasked by someone twirling a little black moustache. But I don’t want to waste time knowing who has blood on their hands from pretty much the outset.

Much later in the schedule, ITV broadcast the first episode of Wanted, a TNT series from 2005 in which Gary Cole leads a Fugitive Task Force charged with tracking down LA’s 100 Most Wanted criminals. I’m sure it was a perfectly decent drama, although the fact that it only lasted all of thirteen episodes might say something, but once suited up in flak jackets and ear-pieces, closing in on a suspect’s house with their semi-automatics held in the ready position, I found myself yawning. Not because of the hour but because I’ve seen this kind of scene so many times before, played out by different actors under different titles.

My feeling is, I’m not just getting tired of these scenes but these kinds of cop shows in general. There has always been a remarkable heritage of police dramas such as Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue, The Shield, Waking the Dead and The Wire that brought something special to the screen. When they were on there were also a lot of other, very different shows mixed into the schedules, shaking it up and making things a lot more livelier. Except now all we’ve got is one generic cops show after another playing two or three variations on the same theme, while anything really different has either packed up and gone home, or is readying to take their last bow, or took the wrong path and are in the process of flaming out.

Maybe this is just a bad stumble at the beginning of the year and things will improve and things will be different. But since nearly every new US drama coming our way from the last Fall Season was some investigative drama it’s going to be a while. I guess I’ll have to go back to the DVDs for proper nourishment. In the meantime the boiler was finally fixed. With the TV here dark, I’m off for the mother of all hot baths.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

What Possessed Them?

I missed the announcement. Can you believe that? If I had known, no doubt I would have been on my knees, face pressed up against the television screen, trying not to spot with nervous anticipation. Of course rather than getting all jingly-jangly about such stuff and nonsense, I was too busy watching the second episode of HBO’s utterly phenomenal John Adams, which Channel 4 is currently showing.

Do you think the UK’s current drama commissioners were watching such an astonishing piece of work? Nah, me neither! Because if they had seen it now or when it was first screened on More4 last year, would they go ahead and give the nod to such utter toss as Demons? Were there any functioning brain stems in evidence when the suits from Shine went to ITV to pitch the show? Rather than wait for security to escort them from the building, I’d have simply set the dogs loose and put the popcorn in the microwave.

What was the pitch? Did they simply spill the fact that it was nothing more than a totally shitty UK rip-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or did they go into more detail? I love the fact that the series creator, Peter Tabern, originally named the show The Last Van Helsing, until someone pointed out that Universal Pictures, who made a massive, fuck-off summer blockbuster some years back, held the rights to the name. This has got to give hope to all the dweeby knuckleheads dreaming up crappy dramas in their bedrooms. If even the most clueless fuckwits can get a commission then there’s hope for everyone else.

Still, would it have hurt to inject Demons with just a smidgen of originality? A kid finds he’s the last of the Van Helsings – the “Chosen One” whose destiny is to hunt demons? Come on?! The American godfather who reveals the fact and then goes about acting as his mentor is called Rupert Galvin? I mean, for fuck sake! Then it turns out that his assistant, who quickly forms part of this UK-based Scooby Gang is the Mina Harker. Of course maybe she’s simply on loan from Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and either Allan Quatermain or Captain Nemo will guest in future episodes.

I know this putrid nonsense is obviously aimed at kids and anyone with dog shit for brains, but even the most retarded must have stared, slack-jawed and goggle-eyed as Mackenzie Crook made his entrance with a squashed vulture nose glued to his face, and muttered, “What the fucking fuck?!” Then again, maybe that audience was probably all aquiver during the time of transmission and failed to notice. After all, they were probably still blowing their load over the news of who was going to step up to be the new Doctor.

Can you believe the BBC1 jacked off over half an hour of the Saturday night schedule for this? Shit, if they were desperate for filler, why didn’t they lump a bunch of the great Fred Quimby-produced Tom and Jerry cartoons together and put in its place. Instead the less than momentous news that some callow streak of piss was going to take over from David Tennant was treated like it was Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets.

After watching a repeat of the Doctor Who Christmas episode on New Year’s Day, and not having a decent excuse like I was far too hung over to know better than waste an hour of my life on such appalling crap, the big announcement to get people cheering in the streets should have been that Russell T Davies was being shitcanned immediately. I phoned a fan of the show up to wish him a Happy New Year and the first words out of his mouth were, “That was shit!” So that saved me the trouble.

I couldn’t agree more. Although it did remind me that it has been far too long since I watched The Iron Giant. So I suppose there was some small benefit from watching it. If this is how UK drama sees fit to welcome in the New Year, I’d say there was little hope for 2009.

Taking Dramatic Steps

Drama at Christmas usually meant some argument kicking off around the dining table followed by everyone simmering in stony silence as we retired to sit in front of the television, hoping for an eventual détente. This year, with everything all remarkably quiet on the familial front, there was nothing else to do but rely on the box for any action. Typically we come up short.

Because we watched comparatively little television over the holiday it probably meant that we missed a slew of remarkable programmes. But knowing the pretty rancid state of British television nowadays, I’d say that was doubtful. While many people complain about the amount of repeats on television they do occasionally prove to be beneficial. Especially when, four years ago we all somehow managed to miss the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking. Of course the reason we let it pass by the first time around was the feature-length drama was probably shown over Christmas that first time out.

Remarkably, Rupert Everett made for a spectacularly louche Sherlock Holmes. Not only that but the plot was one that solely revolved around Holmes’ famous maxim that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It couldn’t get any better than that. Once the credits rolled the only real mystery that remained was why the BBC hadn’t set some money aside to gather Everett and Ian Hart as the stout Dr John Watson together for another adventure.

Instead this year the chief BBC Christmas drama came from the pen of another writer from the same era as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with an adaptation of John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps. Missing it on the day of transmission because I was out with the Lovely Actress, I asked my folks if it had been any good but they had watched the Top Gear Vietnam Special instead. Back in London, I eventually caught it on iPlayer yesterday evening.

Every previous adaptation, beginning with Alfred Hitchcocks’ 1935 film, took liberties with Buchan’s story, whether it was the appearance of Mr Memory or Richard Hannay hanging from the clock hands of Big Ben in the more recent Don Sharp-directed version. This time around, while pretty much sticking to the novel’s plot, came the introduction of a rather feisty suffragette to help Hannay stay one step ahead of the British police and German agents.

Much as I admire Lizzie Mickery’s earlier work, adapting Boris Starling's Messiah and co-writing the political drama The State Within with Daniel Percival, even with all the new twists and turns piled on to beef up Buchan’s story, somehow it all turned out to be quite boring. It started well, with Eddie Marsan’s Scudder evading the foreign spies by forcing his way into Hannay’s bachelor apartment. But once he was offed by the dreaded Hun before he could finish his egg on toast it all went downhill.

Fresh out of Spooks, Rupert Penry-Jones may have made a decent fist of portraying Hannay, running from a biplane rather than hanging from the Forth Rail Bridge, but he just didn’t have the lively personality of Robert Donat. Also, at no point was he handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, which, when it comes down to it, is what we all would have wanted, right?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Goods That Don't Fit The Bill

Thinking back to Christmases from my early teens onwards, the festive season started for me not with Christmas cake and puddings appearing on supermarket shelves even before the leaves had a chance to turn, which seems to be the case nowadays, but part way into December. Even after the first windows of an advent calendar had been opened, the time to really get excited was with the arrival of the double-issue Radio Times.

Back then you could take it as read that amongst the scheduled programmes there would be the Top of the Pops special that my sister would have to watch, The Queen’s Speech, which the grandparents insisted upon sitting down to, followed by similarly traditional staples like The Two Ronnies and Morecambe & Wise Christmas shows. What got me in a lather was eagerly scouring the listings to identify the numerous films that would play an integral part of my holiday viewing.

In what were still the pre-home VCR days, the final two weeks of each year always afforded me the opportunity to see a great many of the important movies made well before my birth. Many of them would be part of numerous retrospectives, including those dedicated to commemorating the famous old Hollywood actors and directors that had passed away in the previous twelve months.

If the practice had still continued, this year would no doubt have seen a varied selection of Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Roy Scheider and Sydney Pollack films. With either the proliferation of satellite and cable channels now making it that much more difficult for the BBC to snap up the rights or schedulers at Television Centre simply not giving a shit, now we get lumped with a typically unimaginative and haphazard collection of nonsensical bollocks, which this year included two of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Meet the Fockers, and a Shrek sequel, all of which have been available on DVD for ages.

One thing that did catch my eye, however, was The RKO Story: Tales from Hollywood. If I couldn’t see the movies then a six-part documentary series on the sometime turbulent history of RKO Radio Pictures would go toward filling the gap. What made it more appealing was that rather than being a recent effort, the series was made over twenty years ago in a decade that had seen the transmission of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s utterly astonishing trio of documentary series: the 13-part Hollywood, about America’s early silent film industry, Unknown Chaplin, and the three-part Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow.

Unfortunately The RKO Story suffered from not having talents like Brownlow and Gill onboard. In fact it was difficult to see whether any talent was involved at all, which was a great pity. As one of the big five studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age, this should have been a really informative and entertaining piece. But after explaining how the studio was founded in 1929 from the merger of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chains and bootlegger Joe Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America, the first episode started to lose its way.

Even though a factual piece, documentaries still need a narrative thread of some kind to take them from beginning to end. Something like The RKO Story could have started with an overview and then either gone chronologically or by different film genres as it told the story of the studio. Maybe it did that in the further episodes, but I gave up long before the first part was over. From what I saw there appeared to have been very little pre-production planning.

Instead it was as if the documentary makers decided to interview as many of the people who had once worked for the studio and then simply cobble the resulting material together as best they could. With luck on their side that may have vaguely worked, except without a properly thought out list of questions steering the interviewee in the right direction, so many of them went off on tangents. Neither were they asked the same questions, which meant that not only could the editors not cut back and forth between them, they were so in awe of the footage there was no judicious editing.

It went off topic so many times that by the time a withered old Katherine Hepburn appeared, blathering on and on about herself rather than the studio, I turned the television off and went to bed, missing the accompanying movie that followed each episode. Maybe it would have worked if the series producers had followed a far different plan of action or even come up with a different title when they realised what they had ended up with. Instead it promised one thing and delivered something else, which is never the best thing to do.

Unfortunately The RKO Story wasn’t the only culprit of this erroneous stratagem on view over the holiday season. Back in August of last year, when Sir Bill Cotton died, I mentioned how surprised I was that, while the broadsheet obituaries celebrated his formidable career as the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment, Controller of BBC1 and Managing Director of Television up until his retirement in 1987, his passing seemed to go virtually unnoticed on television.

Finally, on Boxing Day, BBC2 broadcast the belated tribute, The Man Who Made Eric & Ernie. The problem was that it was only one hour long, concentrating on his work in light entertainment. Then most of the running time was spent on a comparatively narrow selection of the programmes, which coincidentally followed afterwards to fill the evening schedule, rather than Bill Cotton himself. Like Grant Tinker at MTM, Cotton understood that the best thing to do was to hire the best talent he could and let them get on with it.

It may simply have been that some useless suit at the Corporation decided it would be rather embarrassing to compare the accessible BBC of Bill Cotton’s day to the management-choked broadcaster of today. So instead clips replaced any context the show failed to live up to its potential. Bizarrely, as it turned out the best salute to Cotton was the two-part, Brian Sibley-scripted Showman and Star-Maker: a Tribute to Bill Cotton, broadcast on BBC Radio 2 over consecutive evenings from New Year’s Eve. That the best celebration of Bill Cotton’s genius in television had to appear on the radio only went to show how fucked up things have become.

Having shepherded so much classic comedy onto the screens, one wonders what Bill Cotton would have made of Shooting Stars, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s surreal celebrity quiz show. Personally, I never saw the appeal of the pair of juvenile, talentless twats and their puerile nonsense. Because the show is now fifteen years old, someone had the bright idea to spunked away an hour of the schedule on Shooting Stars: The Inside Story earlier in the week. Rather than offer any kind of explanation, because frankly there wasn’t one, most of the running time was eaten up with Reeves and Mortimer dressing up in silly costumes and being self-indulgent tits.

As is always the case, young twerps always need to be shown how it really should be done by their elders. First shown on Christmas Day and then repeated New Year’s Day, the incisive Blackadder Rides Again looked back at the four series of Blackadder that remarkably began a quarter of a century ago. This was certainly more like it, especially since Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis and producer John Lloyd, were especially keen to point out their failures as well as the successes.

Remarkably for Soho media types they were almost falling over themselves to give all credit where it was due. From a brief clip of the original pilot to the utterly godawful first series, they were keen to point out how the arrival of Ben Elton as co-writer and the evolution of the small repertory company of actors in major and minor roles throughout the next three series helped save a show that was almost show consigned to the dumpster after its first year.

I was never a great fan of the show as a whole but Blackadder Goes Forth, the final series set in the trenches of the Great War, was a marvellous piece of satire. The final moments of the final episode, as whistles blow and the characters head over the top to meet their doom was one of the most poignant moments of television ever to be transmitted. When the original studio-shot footage was shown it was shocking to see how embarrassingly useless it was. Watching the rushes twenty-five years on, Atkinson laughed, obviously embarrassed by its ineptitude, while Lloyd seemed to be reliving a moment of pure horror.

Broadcast in that original state the series would have fallen flat on its face. But then Chris Wadsworth, the series editor, suggested slowing the footage down so that only the opening section of the sequence was used, long before they reached the line of barbed wire. Once the sound was slowed down as well, a PA remarked they should end on a shot of poppies that led to a run to the BBC picture library for a relevant transparency. Once that was dropped in as the final shot, someone in the sound department put birdsong over the end, adding the final touch to a piece of pure genius.

Obviously the suggestion of a fifth series came up but Tim McInnery had the right idea, remarking to the equally rotund Tony Robinson that they were too old now and the audience wouldn’t accept seeing them the way they look now. It’s a shame Reeves and Mortimer hadn’t taken that advice because the new, one-off episode of Shooting Stars that followed the useless documentary was an exceptionally dreadful laughter vacuum that must have left the most ardent fan of the original scratching their heads. Sometimes you simply have to move on.