Sunday, June 28, 2009

Worn Down Write Up

Yesterday my wake up call was a sudden, sharp feeling that someone had just stamped down hard on my stomach. I would have preferred the alarm clock as usual, but then I suppose you can’t have everything. So I shuffled off to the bathroom, pissed like a shire horse, and then set about greeting the day.

Unable to go back to sleep I flicked on the television. Because it was just past five o’clock in the morning, which meant I had just missed watching the tail end of BBC2’s block repeat of The Wire, I tuned in the News 24 channel. I may have zoned now and again as I was stretched out on the sofa, but the whole goddamed hour seemed to be about Michael Jackson. Wasn’t there anything actually important going on in the world?

I’m sure there’s some serious shit still going down in Iran. Isn’t that a far bigger deal than the death of a pop star? I can understand an unbridled surge of worldwide weeping and rending of garments for someone like Mohandas Gandhi, but a for pill-popper and possible kiddie-fiddler? Still it was entertaining to see the wailing moppets who decamped to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame set up their shrine on the star of Michael Jackson, the English-born talk show host, on Vine rather than at the proper one around the block on Hollywood Blvd. What a bunch of tools!

Anyway I hung in there until Saturday Kitchen and then this weird thing happened. The guest chefs were about the start an omelette cook-off and then the next thing I knew they were both lobbing tennis balls over a net at each other. Though it might actually have been different people now that I think about it. Obviously I was catching up on interrupted sleep but the zoning out has become an almost daily event. Maybe the heat isn’t helping. Even after chugging down more than twelve pints of water, each accompanied by a large cranberry juice chaser, I’m still spending each day bathed in sweat, feeling too weak and tired to get any proper work done let alone write anything of consequence here.

After all the fluids, it’s this lack of cognitive function that’s turning out to be the real pisser. Struggling to get an outline spruced up, on Thursday work was interrupted as I had to drag myself over to the hospital for a pre-registration urology appointment at the Preadmission Day Surgery Clinic. Expecting to be kept waiting around, before I even had the chance to stare blankly at that day’s crossword before I was called in to go through the prep for next month’s scheduled surgery. Before we went through the checklist the charge nurse gave me some literature to read which explained the procedure and the possible after effects.

Ureteroscopy is a procedure whereby a small telescope is used to look inside the tube which conveys urine from the kidney to the bladder. Samples of tissues of the bladder can sometimes be taken and small lesions can be cleared.

And for two to three days post-op I may be pissing blood. This sounded fantastic! Where do I sign up? Eager as I was, there was still her list of questions to answer. I always try to be prepared but there are always some I flunk on, so this time I made sure I knew how much alcohol I drank. So far this year the grand total is three pints of lager shandy and a glass of champagne, which shows I really need to get out more.

Just as I was feeling a little bit smug about being able to tick that particular box the charge nurse asked who was going to pick me up after the operation. Huh? Since the ureteroscopy is conducted by the Day Services Unit, their “treat ‘em and street ‘em” policy means that as soon as I start to come round from the operation I’m out the door. Obviously still groggy from the anaesthetic, until it properly wears off I’m not supposed to operate machinery, sign important documents or use public transport. So I need a responsible adult to drive me home and stay with me for the following 24 hours. So that would be....? I told her I’d get back to her on that one.

Not happy with that answer she turned into Nurse Ratched, ramming an oversized cotton bud into my nostrils. There was a reason for the nasal swab, which I can’t actually remember now, but I assumed it was because by the time this is all over they want to have jammed something into every available orifice. Then, because the monitor threw a fit every time she tried to take my blood pressure I was first sent to the Cardiology Department for an EKG and then off for another blood test, because obviously I haven’t had one for a week.

Before she was done with me, to check my current stats, she measured my height and took my weight. Even though I’m back eating food that actually tastes of something, it turns out that I’ve now lost close to three stone since this all kicked off. If this keeps up they may have to bring the operation forward otherwise, by the end of next month, there’s going to be nothing left of me to treat.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Iraq In Fragments

Early last week, sat on a bus stuck in traffic and without a crossword at hand to while away the time, I got to thinking, if I’m not watching imported drama on BBC1 simply because there isn’t any, what the hell do I regularly watch on BBC1? Unfortunately, however slowly we crawled along, it soon became apparent that the journey wasn’t going to be long enough to glean a proper answer.

Obviously the channel played a significant role in my television viewing as a youngster, back when I was watching kiddie shows like Blue Peter and Doctor Who, but what now? With far more channels available to flip through, vainly looking for something of interest, BBC1 rarely gets a look in at all. In fact I doubt I’d had have an answer if they’d stuck booster rockets onto the side of the 113, fired it off the Barnet Bypass, and kept everyone on board until the driver smacked into the surface of Ganymede.

Obviously there were programmes I’d occasionally catch because they looked interesting or got a good write up but I rarely had the patience to sit through them from beginning to end let alone throughout their whole series run. In recent months I caught the odd episode of The Apprentice until realising the contestants were a bunch of useless arse clowns I wouldn’t trust to sit the right way on a lavatory. Before that there was Strictly Come Dancing but the grating buffoonery of old Forsythe, who should have been taken to the glue factory years ago, became too grating to stomach.

Granted they’ll help while away the odd hour but if you tolerate them for too long your brain cells will be next. So if light entertainment’s a wipeout there’s always the BBC’s trusted news and current affairs to fall back on. Except Breakfast seems to be out of kilter with a forced bonhomie I simply don’t want at that time of the morning and only drop in for the headlines on the hour or punch up News 24 for a mid-morning break. There’s always Question Time, allowing MPs to reveal what malignant turds they are. Although it was always disappointing that when Caroline Flint appeared the audience didn’t storm the stage and kick that repugnant cunt to death.

Maybe that could be the pitch for a new comedy, because the channel sure as shit needs one. It would certainly bring a smile to everyone’s face, which is more than mush like My Family and Last of the Summer Wine does. I liked Not Going Out because it actually had jokes and was funny. It even had an audience that went beyond special needs and didn’t require daily supervision. I suppose that’s why it got cancelled. That leaves just Have I Got News For You and QI, recently moved over to the channel, for laughs. Except I tend to watch their extended repeats on BBC2, so that’s comedy down the drain as well.

So, inevitably, that leaves drama. For a while, years ago, I used to watch EastEnders and Casualty. Actually, it was more a case of had to watch, simply because they were various girlfriends' favourites. In one instance, when I was seeing a fashion degree graduate, she liked not only Casualty, in which some mope usually tripped over a pork pie and jabbed a fork in their head, but The House of Eliott as well. Boy, that was a real double whammy to grin and bear. But then I figured, grit my teeth and get through the bad stuff because later on the good stuff with the handcuffs and exotic oils would balance it out. Except it turned out she was rubbish in bed.

Luckily now I don’t have to watch soap operas or “continuing drama” or whatever designation is being used for taking dull stories and stretching them unbearably thin. So what does that leave? The easy answer would be to flag up the tried and trusted Waking the Dead and Spooks. While both appear on a pretty regular basis, their annual runs usually only last a couple of months apiece leaving a lot of space for tumbleweed to blow by. There are always new drama series popping up most of them are like a new Nick Hornby book. For the first couple of chapters you’re excited about it but then after a while you just set it aside and try to forget all about it.

In the end all that’s left are the serials and single dramas, the last refuge for writers who actually want to tell a story rather than pick up a regular pay cheque and an audience that wants to dine out on filet mignon rather than the regular turd-topping pizza. Unfortunately they can be few and far between. It has been two years since Stephen Poliakoff’s Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary, and with the dramatist busy working on 1939, his first feature film for ten years, it may be a while before his next television play comes around.

Meanwhile exceptional political conspiracy thrillers seem to be on a three-year cycle. After 2003’s State of Play and 2006’s The State Within, I guess we’re due, although it doesn’t look like there’s one on the immediate horizon. Then again, if you rush these things the result is last year’s Burn Up and The Last Enemy, both of which went straight down the crapper because they were far more interested in ramming their big message down the audience’s throat rather than weaving it into a decent narrative. Still, to make up for it we had the marvellous adaptation of Little Dorrit and then Kenneth Branagh coming apart at the seams on screen in Wallander.

In the end there’s usually just enough good drama to stop each year being a total bust. Yet, sat on the top deck watching the rain hammer against the windows and odd bursts of lightning splitting the sky, I was trying to figure out what there had been that was half decent this year. With 2009 almost half over I couldn’t think of one damn thing, which was rather disappointing. Then the next night Occupation, Peter Bowker’s three-part Iraq war drama, pitched up on the television screen.

It wasn’t exactly perfect, especially coming on the heels of HBO’s Generation Kill, which had already shown us that “peace sucks a hairy arsehole” without ever having to resort to the standard television drama conventions that Occupation ticked off, especially when it came to James Nesbitt’s squadie falling for an Iraqi doctor. That in itself initially threatened to slide into soap opera territory. But as the story moved forward from the coalition forces invading Iraq in 2003 through to 2007 it became clear that the story was about how the post-war power vacuum made the country an even more dangerous place.

As the story jumped forward there was a nagging sense that this was perhaps originally meant to be a longer drama cut down to three hours. That said, the fragmented nature ultimately helped portray the confusion of a country riddled with corruption. With no easy answers, it all came down to the final scene to illustrate how the lives of the three soldiers had been irrevocably altered by their experiences. When Nesbitt’s character asks his estranged comrade, “What happened to you?” and he simply replies, “I went to Iraq.”

If a better drama appears on BBC1 in the last half of the year I’d be happy and very surprised. So far everything has been just too safe or stupid. Still, there’s always BBC2 and BBC4, which has become home to some really excellent arts and culture documentaries. As for BBC3, quite frankly I’d prefer to have someone shit in my mouth and sew it shut rather than watch any of it’s original programming. In the end, two out of four ain’t bad.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taking The Piss

I was already losing confidence in the urologist when, after asking what medication I had been put on, he had to turn to his computer and Google the name to find out what it was. After that it went downhill, with him more interested in poring over the new x-ray to try and locate the kidney stone while I kept asking when could I start eating properly without the abdominal pain and projectile vomiting resurfacing.

With no proper answers forthcoming, in the end we just pored over the sectional images from the CT scan from three weeks back. At least there he could see the stone, which seemed to please him no end, and also helpfully point out the size of the swollen, infected kidney, which was nice. Still, running back and forth through what was essentially an electronic flick book, it was a damn sight more interesting than anything I had seen over the past two weeks.

Having said that, while laid up and pretty much pumped full of my daily allowance of painkillers, flicking through the channels I did happen across an episode of The Saint on ITV4. When it comes to the old ITC dramas from the 1960s and 70s, I was either too young to watch them or they simply passed me by, although I do have a vague memory of catching perhaps one or two episodes of The Persuaders!. Once I finally got around to seeing enough episodes to become reasonably familiar with the material I can’t say that I was particularly impressed.

Since these shows were of their era it was always going to be unfair to watch The Champions or Randall and Hopkirk [Deceased] two or three decades on and try not to compare them to Alias or NYPD Blue or whatever else was on at the time. This particular episode of The Saint, however, came within a few days of the last episode of Ashes to Ashes. Not knowing it had inexplicably been commissioned for a third series, I’d watched it to see just how they were going to flush this massive turd and it was difficult not to weigh one up against the other.

While there was something rather formal about the staging of the inevitable fisticuffs when it came for Simon Templar to give the scoundrels a good drubbing, and the odd piece of back projection proved to be almost as distracting as seeing how many empty parking spaces there were in Central London, The Saint still had a rather ingenious double-cross plot to fall back on that made a lot of sense. Of course another episode might tell a different story, but in this instance it knocked the spots off the utter bone-headed stupidity of Ashes to Ashes.

Although I wasn’t a fan, at least Life on Mars made some slight attempt to contrast the different methods of policing, even if it was really just an excuse to dress up and play at being The Sweeney. Ashes to Ashes, based on that series finale, had tossed everything of value off and degenerated into a dumb cartoon. If they took away the guns and the juvenile behaviour revolving around what might have been a deep-fried penis, it could have been dumped in the Saturday evening slot that everyone is slavering over.

Back in the first series of Spooks one of the neophyte agents gets her head pushed into a deep fat fryer, which pretty much nailed the show’s colours to the mast. In Ashes to Ashes, interrogating some schlub in a chip shop, Gene Hunt takes his man out back to dunk him into the water bath the raw potato slices are being dumped into. Even in my partially zoned out state, it was pretty clear from the camera angle that while the actor was thrashing his arms in the water, his head hardly came close to the water let alone get pushed below the surface.

Later, during the rather silly bullion robbery, when the Audi Quattro piles in to knock down the bent copper, the actor/stuntman/whatever jumped in the air long before the car’s front bumper got anywhere near him. Piss-poor storytelling, sadly, seems to be a given nowadays when it comes to most BBC drama, but as some kind of compensation can’t we at least have decent production values to make it look like someone onboard was at least trying to make an effort?

When you look at how far American drama has progressed, contrasting, say, Gunsmoke to Deadwood or Dragnet to Life, it’s disappointing and dispiriting that the episode of The Saint, which was originally broadcast the same year as those earlier US shows, was the most intelligent hour of British-made drama I had seen on television that week.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Loyal Hunt Of The One

For the past few days, when I haven’t been writhing in agony from the kidney infection, I’ve been rather bemused by the pointless fuss caused by comments made by the new BBC1 Controller that she won’t be actively shopping for any new American series. Speaking at the Broadcast Press Guild event earlier in the week, Jay Hunt said that such acquisitions were not a “massively important part” of her vision for the channel and suddenly industry magazine articles and blog posts across the Atlantic are all in a nonsensical lather.

Looking beyond their ninny knee-jerk reaction, which appears to have caused must wailing and rending of garments across Los Angeles, if they had got past thinking that everything is always about them they might have figured out that her statement was most likely directed towards us. Before stepping into the role of Controller of BBC1 last May, after Peter Fincham stepped down over the nonsensical “Crowngate” scandal, Hunt was Five’s Director of Programmes. The channel, known for “films, fucking and football,” during its first few years on air, only began to improve its audience share once it began to aggressively snap up new US dramas.

Aside from the The Gadget Show and Fifth Gear and a succession of crappy action movies, Five’s nightly schedule is otherwise stuffed full of NCIS, The Shield, Grey’s Anatomy and The Mentalist, supporting every variation of CSI and Law & Order available. Maybe Hunt was using the event to announce that now she’s found her desk at White City and finally settled in, she won’t continue that Long Acre mentality, suddenly cashing in the annual £1.12 billion budget – over five times the amount she had to play with at Five – and showering it over Burbank like one of those Bangkok girls who can do that trick with the ping pong balls.

If that isn’t the reason for her doing it, then what exactly is the reason? BBC1 doesn’t do American drama anymore. It used to, back when it had one companion channel and there was only one rival ITV channel. But with the arrival of Channel 4 and Sky TV, ahead of the proliferation of cable stations, all eager to buy new product to fill their schedules, the BBC pretty much took a step back, letting them get on with their buying sprees rather than get into pissing contests over who could write the largest cheque to snap up the latest hit.

It didn’t mean the BBC completely banished American programmes from the schedules. Instead it has been left to BBC2 to screen various dramas and comedies, usually long after they had been broadcast on Sky or, as in the case of 24, until they were poached by the satellite channel. Even when the BBC stumped up £7 million toward the budget of HBO’s Band of Brothers, the acclaimed wartime drama was ultimately broadcast on BBC2. Although in recent years BBC1 has broadcast the rather average Medium in a late-night slot and the more successful Damages, the last long-running drama shown on BBC1 in a primetime slot was probably The X-Files, which had started out on BBC2 until the ratings rose high enough for it to be appropriated.

So, that’s that sorted, which means everyone in American alarmed by her pronouncement can go back to snorting ketamine of their cabana boy’s naked buttocks or eating their way through a bucket of buffalo wings while reloading their assault rifles. Except, where does that leave English viewers? Reported in Broadcast, Hunt continued by saying:

“I do feel absolutely passionate that part of what I’m there to do, particularly in drama, is to spearhead real innovation and creativity and original British product. That’s something that we do, day in day out.”

Really? Well, if anyone has a few minutes spare could they come and help retune my television because obviously I’m picking up a completely different BBC1.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Don’t Eat The Snow In Outer Space

I was nosing around YouTube for some choice classic B&W silent comedy clips to provide some light relief while you struggle to come up with your six old black & white movies to introduce someone to the world of cinema, and was recommended this. I’m not a fan of a lot of these mashups, simply because they aren’t as clever as their creators think they are. Han Solo, P.I., however, is genius as far as I’m concerned.

There is also a side–by–side comparison with the original Magnum, P.I. title sequence for those who don’t remember it, which shows that the folk who put all this together actually took the time to select the right clips rather than simply cobble together any old footage.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

A Clearly Defined Issue

Here’s a question for you. It was one asked to me last Friday week when I was out at the birthday bash. One of the guests was a wonderful character actor I hadn’t seen for well over a decade. After we were reintroduced and were catching up, standing outside having a quick gasper, he posed a question that had been put to him perhaps a month earlier:

You have to introduce someone to the world of cinema with only six old black & white movies. What would they be?

It wasn’t something to answer immediately. Especially since, for the few of us standing around who heard this, our initial reaction was to stand open mouthed and say, “Uh.....?” For the next couple of hours, when we’d regroup to spark up, I would throw a few titles out as suggestions, but still didn’t manage to have a concrete list by the time I called it a night and was on my way home.

I probably would have let it go, but then when I was up at the local A&E last week, waiting for tests and then waiting for the results to come back, it came to mind and helped pass the time. Outside the pub I had decided there had to be a film by Stanley Kubrick, Powell & Pressburger, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, which immediately went over the half dozen, so that wasn’t going to work.

When I tried a different tack, the selection contained far too many comedies including Buster Keaton’s The General, The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, Ealing Studios’ Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Palm Beach Story, simply because everyone should be introduced to the drunken goings on of the Ale and Quail hunting club. But then if I had Sturges’ screwball comedy on the list, that would make Howard Hawk’s His Girl Friday redundant. So one, if not more, would simply have to go.

Moved from a hospital bed to a wheelchair and then deposited in a corridor to wait my turn for a CT scan where, due to the continual opening and closing of various doors periodically blew a rather substantial breeze up under the hospital gown, I decided to concentrate on picking one film from six different genres. Counting off on my fingers I decided there should be a war movie, science fiction/fantasy, horror, western, romantic comedy, musical, drama, comedy, and a thriller.

Except that still didn’t work because it went well beyond the requisite half dozen, so which would have to be omitted? And I hadn’t even included animation, which stupidly gets listed as a genre, even though it’s a filmic technique rather than a category of story. After all, you don’t get “live-action” included in a genre list. Still, it wouldn’t stop Gertie the Dinosaur or Steamboat Willie making the shortlist.

For war movies I was thinking of Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well or The Small Back Room or even Ice Cold in Alex, but ultimately it would be a toss up between Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, with the latter most probably taking the edge. In the science fiction/fantasy category I’d have to choose from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still or Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

A horror movie would have to be picked from either Wise’s The Haunting, Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Bride of Frankenstein, or Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. If a western made it into the final six it would be John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance over My Darling Clementine and Howard Hawks’ Red River. At least picking a musical would be easier. Without any question that would be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.

When it came to romantic comedies I’d put Billy Wilder’s The Apartment above The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner and Ninotchka. As for romances I’d like to put forward I Know Where I’m Going or FW Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, but I can’t help feeling they’d both be beaten to that top spot by Jean Vigo’s utterly captivating L’ Atalante about a French barge captain and his new bride.

By this point I’m already over the six and still haven’t mentioned dramas like Sweet Smell of Success, All About Eve and Sunset Blvd., or the great action adventure films like King Kong or Gunga Din. Then there are the thrillers such as Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and Notorious, or Double Indemnity, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s nerve-jangling The Wages of Fear and Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate.

Hot on their tail are the great noir thrillers like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly. And that’s even without mentioning the classics that easily come to mind like Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane, The Public Enemy, Night of the Hunter, On the Waterfront and Some Like it Hot, plus the films of Kurosawa, David Lean’s adaptations of Dickens, and even Italian Neo-Realism, although truth be told I wouldn’t say the latter were particular favourites of mine.

Back when the question was posed, I should have asked why the restriction of only black and white movies being available. As I worked down this ever-expanding shortlist before I even got to a semblance of a final list, I began to understand why. Sure there have been black and white films made in more recent years, such as Manhattan and The Man Who Wasn't There, but going back to the 1930s through to the 1950s, the films had to stand on the sole merits of a great script, great acting and great direction.

Obviously not all of them ticked all the boxes, but those earlier movies didn’t have the fourth option used far too many times now, which is: rely on hollow spectacle when all else fails. A couple of weeks ago I watched Terminator 2 for the first time in ages. While it was still very slick and shiny, with the liquid metal man effects now rather passé I was surprised by how empty it ultimately was. When it came to the horribly mawkish sermon at the end of this particularly expensive bowl of soup I reached for the off switch, wishing that I had spent the time watching a wonderful old Raoul Walsh B-movie instead.

Having stumbled across Night at the Museum on Sunday night, which Channel 4 felt the need to screen on two consecutive weekends, I watched for a few minutes, foolishly expecting at least a couple of jokes to turn up. For a comedy I thought that would be quite essential but apparently CGI shenanigans take priority over actual gags nowadays. If today’s audience laps up this kind of nonsense its because they are ignorant of the sharp scripts Billy Wilder co-wrote with Charles Brackett and then Izzy Diamond or the marvellous physical comedy of Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy.

Maybe this shouldn’t be about deciding on the six movies to introduce someone to cinema, but the six movies to reintroduce modern audiences, who obviously don’t know any better, to the real power of cinema. Either way my six would be: Dr Strangelove, The Apartment, L’ Atalante, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Top Hat and La Belle et La Bête. Tomorrow, of course, might me a different story. In the meantime, what would you choose?