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.


At 7:46 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

There are two things about the old copies of the Christmas Double-Issue Radio Times that I - somewhere - still have (sad f***er that I am): firstly, thy always had seasonal ART not PHOTOGRAPHS on the cover; and, secondly, the great number of movie listings that had red biro rings round them -- to be WATCHED!

BTW - thanks for the puff. I should have liked to have presented the radio Bill Cotton tributes as well as 'scripting' them (which, by the way, covered conducting all the interviews) but we live in an age of celebrity and that, I'm afraid (or glad) to say, I am NOT...

At 7:50 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

...Oh, yes, and a Happy (whatever that constitutes) New Year! :-)

At 5:21 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


you did a great job with it. I'd forgotten about the Christmas artwork on the cover of the Radio Times. I knew I should have checked Tony Currie's book on the magazine beforehand.

I know I'm going to sound like a grumpy old git but both the magazine and Bill Cotton's tenure perfectly illustrated how much better things were when there were fewer channels.

Try telling that to today's snarky and sulky youths though...

At 12:57 am, Blogger LF Barfe said...

I haven't listened to the Radio 2 Billfest yet (looking forward to it after this build-up, obviously), but the TV one was cobblers. I don't recall there being any mention of Eric Maschwitz or Tom Sloan, who were both important mentors to Bill. No sign of Yvonne Littlewood, who reminded Ronnie Waldman that 'young Bill' was waiting to hear whether he'd been accepted for the directors' course. Just the stars saying how great he was to realise how great they were.

As you say, the important thing about Bill and the BBC in those days was that he signed the talent, then let them get on with it. Concentrating on the shows results in a rehash of Comedy Connections and doesn't tell us very much about the interesting, drily humorous man who made them happen. His post-LE career is worthy of study too. He might not have been the most successful MD Tel, but he was the only one ever to come from the tits and tinsel end of the BBC. Maybe I should pitch 'Bill Cotton: In His Own Words' somewhere, based on the minidisc recording of my 2.5-hour interview with him. Apart from brief interruptions from the Groucho Club's ice machine, the quality's more than listenable.

The choice of archive programmes afterwards was lazy too. The Gen Game was a glorious thing to see in its entirety, but the others are available on DVD. Surely they could have found room for a Billy Cotton Band Show (preferably the surviving 1961 edition with Eric and Hattie, which is an hour of pure joy).

Yes to everything else you say about Christmas schedules of the past. It's obvious that a lot of thought went into them, which isn't so evident now. Still, even the golden age had its moments of base metal - Barry Took used to tell a story of an LWT programme planner trying to put The Swingles Sing Christmas out in mid-February.

I'm about to start part 3 of The RKO Story, but it does seem to be all over the shop already. I hope the interview rushes are all tucked up safely at Windmill Road. Hollywood - now, that's a series that BBC4 should acquire, as the clip clearances involved mean there's not a snowflake's chance of a DVD release.

At 11:57 pm, Blogger Nickname unavailable said...

Sorry to dispel the myth, but not all the RT Christmas editions were artwork. For the first half of the 70s there were 'star' photos - Two Rons, Morecambe and Wise, and Frank Spencer, and the 80s saw Only Fools and Eastenders.


Post a Comment

<< Home