Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Fellowship Of The Wrong

Apparently this year’s BAFTA television awards are going to be doled out on Sunday evening. I suppose I should have known that the ceremony was imminent but I really didn’t give a damn. Given its current, deplorable state, I can’t figure out why this celebration of British television is once again drawn out over the evening when it shouldn’t really last more than a couple of minutes.

If ITV, rather than the BBC, held the broadcast rights for the ceremony, instead of stretching it out over the course of the evening I’d imagine they could fit it in the gap between Heartbeat and Hell’s Kitchen and still have time left over to flog the odd breakfast cereal or washing detergent. With Doctor Who still laughingly being nominated for the Best Drama award and The Friday/Sunday Night Project up for the Entertainment Programme BAFTA, given in honour of Lew Grade, who really gives a shit who the various gongs get hurled at.

Worse than these two terrifying examples is the news of who will be this year’s recipients of the Academy Fellowship. Since it’s inception in 1971, when the first of its kind was presented to Sir Alfred Hitchcock, the BAFTA Fellowship has been awarded “in recognition of outstanding achievement in the art forms of the moving image.” Which begs the question, why the fucking-fuckity-fuck is it being awarded to Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders? I mean, that would be as ludicrous as the Nobel Committee deciding to hand out the Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger... SHIT!!

While French and Saunders haven’t done anything as deplorable as instigating the bombing of Cambodia (although that could be debateable), when it comes to outstanding achievement in the art forms of the moving image, how the fuck did their names get on the list let alone right at the top? Looking back over their 22-year career in comedy, which is what the award is supposed to be recognising, the question is not when did they stop being funny but when were they ever funny? Looking back at the days of “alternative comedy” you realise it was simply an alternative to comedy.

French has always been under the misapprehension that if fat is funny, morbid obesity must then be fucking hilarious, while Saunders seems to think that disappearing into character can make up for an increasing absence of jokes. Apart, The Vicar of Dibley was simply vomit and while Absolutely Fabulous was amusing to begin with, thanks to Joanna Lumley and June Whitfield, it said all it had to say in the first couple of episodes then retrod the same ground over the next nine years, devaluing whatever currency it had. Together they took the easy option of increasingly lame movie parodies.

While I thought they had already promised to give up their double act they managed to ooze back onto television in the recent Comic Relief. Luckily I missed it, but from reliable sources it appeared that their chuckle-free take on Mamma Mia was the definition of execrable. Maybe these “comedy icons” are only getting the award on the understanding that they now fuck the fuck off and never darken our screens again.

In the meantime, news of the BAFTA honour pointed out that they were only the second comedy duo to receive the Fellowship after Morecambe and Wise had been the well-deserved recipients of the award back in 1999. Obviously this little nugget bypassed Richard Curtis who recently went on the record to describe French and Saunders as the UK's “best ever double act.” Really? Better than Morecambe and Wise? Hell, I wouldn’t even put them ahead of Cannon and Ball. Then again, why listen to the word of someone who, like a cheap supermarket’s own-brand yoghurt, only gets worse with age having repeated blotted his copybook since co-writing Blackadder.

If not French and Saunders, then who should be this year’s recipient? I suppose many, equally misguided fools would say Russell T Davies, although they might simply be putting their hands up not to vote but because they simply need to have their nappies changed. No doubt he’ll be put forward next year after he’s finished corroding Saturday evening television with his laughable rather than laudable take on Doctor Who.

Since Andrew Davies, acclaimed for his adaptations of classic novels for television, was the deserved recipient in 2002, I’d say it was time for a writer of original drama. Obviously it’s too late for Dennis Potter, even though Eric Morecambe’s award came posthumously, so my pick would be Troy Kennedy Martin or his brother Ian, or the pair of them, making a far better double act than the one presented.

Then again, in 1997 the Fellowship went to Steven Bochco. So if the television award can go outside the UK, much like the Fellowships to film professionals, then there’s only one name I can think of who deserves the recognition. If you’re expecting me to say David Simon as the obvious choice, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Instead, my pick, just for ER and The West Wing alone in a long and distinguished career, would be John Wells.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Many, many years ago, James Graham Ballard was instrumental in getting my first short story published.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Where Are We?

So that’s the short but sweet interlude that was Easter over with. Shame really, because I was rather enjoying sitting in my folks’ garden surrounded by the blazing slashes of colour in the flower beds, the pear tree in full blossom, and even buds appearing on the recently planted apricot tree, listening to the melodic chirruping birdsong.

When that proved too taxing there were always strolls along the promenade beneath the wheeling Herring Gulls, first in the home town and then up the coast in the company of the Lovely Actress where a couple of overly optimistic sunbathers were stretched out on the beach. After theatre on the Saturday night she came over for lunch on Easter Sunday. Served up in the kitchen we retired to the patio table to eat in the sunshine.

Far too soon I was pried out of the lawn chair and on my way back to the city where the clear blue sky was smeared with a dirty grey smudge of cloud and the muted drone of traffic seeped through the double-glazing. If there was one tiny glitch in the four days of bliss it was that as Easter Monday drew to a close I watched the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced King Arthur, dropped into BBC One’s schedule like one last steaming turd before they flushed the bank holiday weekend away.

As someone who has been enamored with the Arthurian legends since childhood it was obvious that this pile of baloney, meant to show a “historically accurate” version of the events, would be anathema to me so it was my own fault for watching it. Ignoring how the legends were totally skewed, it was at least entertaining to see Ray Stevenson audition for the role of Titus Pullo in HBO’s Rome, even if Dagonet was Arthur's court jester rather than the steely-eyed warrior, and Ray Winstone raise his profile in Hollywood as the lusty, rather than pure of heart, Bors.

On the downside Clive Owen’s “Artorius Castus” was an empty suit of armour and Keira Knightley portrayed Guinevere as a vapid pout, which pretty much sums up every role she plays. Even worse, the first clash with the Saxons was a piss-poor rip on the battle of the ice climax from Alexander Nevsky – although the short term memory mopes would probably point toward the climactic battle in Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain, not knowing it was a homage to Eisenstein – made worse by the typically overblown Hans Zimmer score in place of the original Prokofiev.

As for the supposed historical accuracies, we could ask why the fuck the Saxons were coming down through Caledonia to attack Hardian’s Wall from the north? Or where the Picts (or “Woads”) got their trebuchets? Or more especially, what were the Romans that Arthur and his “knights” had to rescue before gaining their freedom from Rome’s service doing north of the Wall to begin with? While I could pick at this nasty scab of a film all day and all night, there was one thing that utterly spoiled it for me, and that was its utterly misplaced sense of geography.

I don’t mean daft geography, like Robin Hood riding from Dover to Nottingham via Hadrian’s Wall (and all in one day) in Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, another of Hollywood’s attempts at making a complete dog’s breakfast of English myths in the name of popular entertainment. While I’m sure I was paying attention to King Arthur, for most of the time I simply had no idea where the characters were supposed to be at any given time.

Obviously it was set around the north of England’s border region but I was at a loss to where the initial garrison was in relation to Hadrian’s Wall, in relation to Ken Stott’s character’s northern estate. Why the hell did the Arthur and his men from the Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry have to travel through the Pict-infested forest? Or was that simply to shoehorn the natives into the narrative by way of introduction?

It may have been that Antoine Fuqua, King Arthur’s director, simply forgot to shoot any brief establishing shots to drop into the edit. That utter failure to put things in context reminded me of Renny Harlin’s abominable studio-destroying Cutthroat Island. Obviously it has been a long time since it washed up on the box, giving me the opportunity to see which particular godawful, redundant stream of spew made by Carolco brought down the company, so I may not have the details right, but the one sequence that stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of slack-jawed ineptitude was the chase through the island town.

Which island, I can’t rightly say, because I’m sure there was more than one. Either way, it involved Genna Davis’ gormless dough ball-faced pirate escaping from somewhere, taking off on a cart and being chased by soldiers on horseback. Down the mean cobbled streets everyone went at a gallop, probably ending up at the quay, but at no time was there a proper idea of where the escapee was in relation to her pursuers or where either party was in the town itself.

Maybe budgetary restrictions precluded the use of wide shots or maybe it was simply a combination of directorial and editorial incompetence, but any tension or excitement the narrative was trying to pull out of the bag fell on its arse simply because nobody was keeping track of where anyone was. Then again, even if King Arthur had the necessary slivers of connective tissue I doubt it would have made it any better.

Fuqua, Bruckheimer and writer David Franzoni, whose script shows how vital John Logan and William Nicholson’s contributions obviously were to Gladiator, should have heeded the words of Carleton Young’s character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when they set out to make this “historically accurate” version of Arthur:

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Get Away!

According to news reports a record Easter exodus is already underway, with thousands fleeing the capital. It may be down to families taking their demon spawn on holiday now that the schools have broken up, although the more rational explanation may be that people are simply unplugging their televisions and running for their lives now that the BBC are running previews for the new Doctor Who episode that is going to be hawked up onto the screen over the Easter weekend.

Normally, when it comes to celebrating the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern spring equinox, I tend to put my feet up and abstain from any festivities. This year I’m willing to be tied up in traffic as I head west again, spending the weekend with my folks. Heading home for the third time in five months may seem like an extreme measure to take but at least it means avoiding any contact with Planet of the Dumb, and as a bonus I get to take the Lovely Actress who just lives up the coast to a play being put on at a local theatre on the Saturday night.

I know Doctor Who should be dismissed as dumb fun for dummies, the way that this year’s four specials are aimed at an audience who would be politely termed “special”, but it’s the outright fucking plagarism I can’t stand. You can argue that that there are only a finite number of original stories and everything is just a variation on a theme. When it comes to the science fiction/fantasy genre there are the familiar tropes recycled again and again. But there are limits.

Back in the original days of Doctor Who, Robert Holmes used to thieve ideas and elements from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer, which is a bit rich given that he started his career as a policeman, but when it came to the revival, Russell T. Davies (who once announced that Holmes’ writing was “up there with Dennis Potter”, which must be grounds for instant committal) went for grand larceny on a massive sale.

Some years back I suggested a spot-the-“lift” drinking game, with everyone taking a shot when a flagrant steal from someone else’s work appeared in an episode. If that had taken off everyone participating would easily be on their third liver transplant by now. What made it all the more irritating was that rather than trying to deny that he had stolen other people’s ideas or been chastened by the fact he had been caught out, Davies seemed to revel in the fact. As I mentioned before, after the two-part story that ended the second season virtually raped Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, in an interview in The Independent, Davies stated:

It's all there for the taking, I do it gladly. The ending of Doctor Who, where we had to separate the Doctor and Rose, that was unashamedly taken from the Phillip Pullman novels. They're brilliant, and every child reads them. So that creates a resonance, when they've got a story in one part of their minds and they see Doctor Who and think, 'Oh right! You can change stories!'

Some people (i.e. pond scum) may read that and agree with him, saying, sure, what’s the big deal. Here’s the thing. Over the years I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to track down an interview with Terry Gilliam. This was conducted after he had made Brazil and after an ad agency in the UK had produced a spot for, if I remember right, Hewlett Packard computers that ripped off the scene where De Niro’s Harry Tuttle disappears in a blizzard of newspaper.

Gilliam’s justified beef was that while people who saw his film first and understood the commercial had nicked his ideas, there was also a potential audience for his film who would have seen the commercial first and then, when they eventually got around to watching Brazil, would think he was the one who had stolen the concept and all his hard work to come up with something original would be for nought. If it hasn’t happened already, how aggrieved do you think Pullman is going to feel at some future book signing when some young walking fungus holds a copy of The Amber Spyglass up and accuses him of ripping off Doctor Who?

So whose works has Davies blatantly been dipping into for Planet of the Dumb? Well, it’s set on a desert planet. Would that be Arrakis? And, oh look, the characters got there on a double decker bus! Didn’t Doug Liman’s Jumper have a red London suddenly appear in the desert? Then comes the swarm of predatory creatures existing in the wasteland and obviously looking for dinner. That’s very Pitch Black, which makes it all the more disappointing. If Davies has to steal his ideas, he hasn’t even got the nous to steal from the best.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Plumbing The Depths

After another week watching and writing about more movies, this time advancing a decade to some pretty damn grim slasher movies from the early 1980s, I figured I could do with some chuckles. Also I could do with getting out and stretching my legs in the sunshine after the days wedged in front of the computer.

Usually it’s easy to combine the two. Last week, getting the bus over to see H, one of a trio of pimply urban Harrow youths in their baggy sweatpants sprawled in the seats behind me piped up about the time “the Feds” had been round banging on his girlfriend’s front door looking for him. The Feds? Really? The rozzers, the Old Bill, the pigs, the scum, the fuzz, or just plain old plod, perhaps, but the Feds?!

Having been a little cut off these past few days, I wondered whether the G20 protests were still going on. If it was all still kicking off I could have ambled down to The City with a packed lunch and watched “the Feds” in action. In a photograph printed in the paper that showed a demonstration around Bishopsgate, one of the protesters seemed to have a baseball cap, worn backwards, under his sweatshirt’s hood, which is just plain wrong. He seemed the ideal candidate for the peelers to bludgeon some sense into.

Alas everyone had already packed up and gone home, leaving the glaziers to move in. Aren’t these summits supposed to last longer than a Bank Holiday end-of-line sofa sale? I thought the whole point of these little get togethers was for everyone to take ages disagreeing over what to agree on while outside rioters violently disagreed with their decisions. Then again, with the little shindig expected to cost over four times the original estimate of £19 million, what with police overtime, hotel rooms, minibar tabs and pay-per-view movies, the sooner the damned thing is over the better.

Maybe having Super Barack on the team brought everyone to order quicker than usual. Really, all he had to do was make his flock see that, whatever the outcome, the French are still a bunch of cunts and Berlusconi is a useless, mouthy, overstuffed sock puppet and best ignored. I suppose once that has sunk in, fixing the really difficult stuff comes more easily, but I got the impression that all this could have been swung for less with a video conference call, even with free beer and pizza thrown in.

Too late to see any skulls being cracked I figured I could get my own brain damaged by going to see a movie. If it was laughs I was after, according to the TV spots that repeatedly failed to show anything remotely amusing, The Boat That Rocked was my only port of call. Even though Anthony Quinn, writing in The Independent, ended his one-star review by calling it “The Film That Sucked”, the movie had to be the laugh riot I was looking for because there were characters in it called Twatt and Miss Clitt. Who needs well constructed comedy when there are rude names to snigger over?

More importantly the film was made by Richard Curtis, currently King Gonorrhea amongst Britain’s comedy STDs, who has stopped writing about hapless Oxbridge toffs to concentrate on charitable deeds to atone for inflicting the execrable The Vicar of Dibley upon the public at large. Whatever the broadsheets said The Boat That Rocked had to be a winner. With that in mind I turned off the computer, strode out of the flat, stopped in the first store along the High Street, bought a bag of Dorritos and a bottle of pop, and came right back home to watch Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers.

However ace and skill these new films think they are, nothing beats a good Ealing Comedy. Given the brouhaha surrounding the break in Royal protocol, after Michelle Obama appeared to put her arm around Her Maj, it’s a shame the Greek didn’t do his best impersonation of Danny Green’s One-Round and bark out, “Nobody touches the old lady!” before she got anywhere near Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas Queen, Defender of the Faith.

After that I happened across Anne Billson’s article in The Guardian entitled ‘Can British films get any worse?’ in which she lays into the “plodding scenes, endless dialogue [and] pointless Hollywood mimicry” that inflict UK cinema. Even without a mouthy Italian imbecile in the room it was something I could agree with.