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.


At 1:36 am, Blogger potdoll said...

Heh heh my hubble wants to kill the telly in when Lauren Laverne comes on.

At 11:54 am, Blogger MISA said...

It is interested very much.
Please link to this site.

At 2:30 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Let your hubble know that he’s not alone. I don’t know when you can get the iPlayer working for you, or whether the trans-Atlantic connecting strings have got knotted again, but I’m thinking you’d find the Ed Burns segment interesting. Especially when he gets to casting.



At 2:19 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

I saw the Culture Show and that was interested very much, too.

"You make a film for the person or persons who you are depicting."

Thank f*** someone like Ed Burns is saying it, because now British producers might start to take it seriously. I know they don't when I argue against a "Why bother? The viewer won't know" mentality.

At 4:38 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


“Why bother? The viewer won’t know”

What a really horrible mentality that is. What if everyone took that approach? (Although it seems the banks and other financial institutions already have).

In last year’s interview with David Simon on the show he stated:

“Fuck the casual viewer. Who wants a casual viewer? If you’re a writer, do you want a casual reader? I don’t want those people. Don’t want them, throwing them back. They’re like the little fish on the hook. I’m throwing them back. I want the guy whose coming in who wants to be told a story with a beginning, middle and end.”

With him trying to set the audience right, hopefully Burns’ words will have some effect on producers and commissioners. Anyone taking a lackadaisical approach isn’t doing their job properly and should be booted out.

I’m sure that you save you having to bash your head against the wall in frustration.

At 7:05 pm, Blogger jhg said...

Laverne is a vacuous nit-wit minus the wit, but getting past her, I've seen Generation Kill in all it's glory, and it really is very good indeed. Being an aspiring TV writer (even that sounds douchey) Good Dog, can you tell me whether it's true that most TV producers are rat-faced little cowards who do nothing but bludgeon great ideas into focus-group pandering piles of shmit. All I hear is that they are idiots, and most of them couldn't tell a good show from their slack arses. Is this true or is it all lies?

At 11:09 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I think Stephen’s the one you need to ask that question. Or Potdoll. Or read Bill Martell’s blog.

The only television drama producers I’ve crossed paths with were Tony Garnett (twice) and Michael Wearing, both in more social situations, even if one time was a screening at Horseferry Road. Both were intelligent men with absolutely no airs and graces who obviously took the work seriously and had interesting opinions about how the television landscape had changed.

Other than that there have been a couple of good film producers I’ve worked with – Don Hahn and Robert Watts. Bob Watts, who if I remember rightly would wear an ascot, used to tell us tales about working on the Indiana Jones movies. Don Hahn was more hands-on production wise. When we worked weekends, because I was showing an interest in the process, he used to usher me into the editing room when I passing and talk about how the scenes we’d watched in rushes every day were being cut together. Those two were thoroughly decent guys.

Then you have the utter boneheads who couldn’t find their ass with two hands and a flashlight. You find yourself checking their feet to see if there is an L and an R painted on the tops of their shoes. From my previous work, most of these arse-clowns have been in advertising and animation. Some of them were utterly useless, some of them could just about hold it together, but were really busking on the job and getting lucky more often than not. The rest were only useful as landfill.

There is a certain producer at a very successful production company - and there’s no way I can actually name her or the company – who I had run-ins with, and the bods in my department figured that the only way she had attained his was position was through dispensing blowjobs and taking it up the arse. She was the most utter wile and worthless human being I’ve ever met. In fact, it’s an insult to human beings to lump her into the category. She was an utter cunt. I’m sorry but there are no other words to describe her.

The next worst was a “wannabe” producer and... Actually, you know, I don’t think I can talk about that one. Basically it involved someone who was a worthless puddle of rancid effluvium who brilliantly fucked up what could have been a lucrative line of work for us. And recalling all that wouldn’t do my blood pressure any favours.

The next, next worse was another “wannabe” producer who got us involved in a project. Filming done and editing almost finished, she arrived one day with the V/O artiste who was going to record the narration. I don’t she had had much involvement in post until then, made a few comments about the cut and I asked her opinion about a couple paragraphs of the script. She was only there for about an hour and because of that involvement insisted upon a co-editing and co-writing credit along with her producer credit. That alone perfectly illustrated she didn’t have a fucking clue about it.

I’ve said this before in comments or even posts, but the best directors or producers I worked for had started their career right at the bottom and worked their way up. They understood the mechanics of the job. Or, if there were elements of the process they were unsure about, they asked what would need to be done.

What it comes down to is, like with many people working in any discipline, the ones who are comfortable in their own skins and good at their jobs and actually do their jobs, who admit they don’t know everything and are happy asking advice, those are the folk to work for. I don’t know whether it’s because of these media courses or because it looks like a glamorous thing to do, but any fool can print up a business card and call themselves a producer having bigged up their previous credits. They like the accoutrements that are expected to go with the role but can’t actually play the role. Really, they’re no better than carpetbaggers.

I dunno, does that answer the question?


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