Sunday, November 29, 2009

A New Age

Faced with the perpetually overcast sky and the near continual downpours of rain that robbed today of almost all daylight, and eager to stave off the unremitting cold that seems intent on seeping into my bones and taking up permanent residence whenever I step outside, I decided it was best to stay in, put my feet up and watch a good movie. I settled for Sir David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.

I’d like to say that it was a casual choice but for the past few days I’ve had Ogden Nash’s observation, “progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long,” rolling around in my head. And with so much interest in motion capture, virtual sets, digital 3D, and all the other bollocks involved, I just wanted to watch a movie that replied on production rather than post–production.

If The Bridge on the River Kwai was made today no doubt a team of pixel–monkeys sitting at their computers would be employed to create the pyrotechnic finale. Or maybe they’d be doing the whole damn thing. Back in 1957, to make his film about obsessive characters the increasingly obsessive director, headed into the jungle with his cast and crew where they actually built the bridge and then eventually blew the fucker up – while a train was steaming across it – rather than relying on a miniatures unit to take care of business.

All told Lean and his team spent 250–odd days in Ceylon. In London last week for the Royal gala premiere of The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson, who is producing the new trilogy of Tintin films announced that, having long finished filming, they had a final edit of The Secret of the Unicorn. All that was left to do was the computer rendering, which would take the next two years to complete. Two years? Two whole fucking years?!

I can understand motion capture being used as a tool to aid in the creation of a computer–generated character that will be inserted into live action footage. The best example remains Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But to use the process to morph the actors into strangely exaggerated characters that inhabit a wholly CGI–environment seems totally redundant, especially when it takes up a massive amount of time, a huge chunk of change, and the end result is this strange, almost repellent quasi–animation that ultimately doesn’t work.

Once upon a time Robert Zemeckis made some pretty decent movies but now he’s retired from live–action to concentrate on motion capture the finished films haven’t been that impressive. Maybe Zemeckis became obsessed with the technology, or maybe he reached a point in his life where he preferred to film close to home and sleep in his own bed every night. Either way, someone should point out that if you want to make an really good animated feature, hire some expert animators rather than relying on expensive actors prancing around while they’re covered in little dots.

I sat through Beowulf and that was a struggle. It was like someone had decided to make a new car and asked shipbuilders to design and build it. If I want to watch an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol I’d go back to the live action Scrooge starring Alastair Sim or the animated version directed by Richard Williams, again starring Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, but not Zemeckis’ weird hybrid, especially knowing that they’d spunked $200 million on it.

The problem is these new movies seem to concentrate on the spectacle rather than the story. With Avatar steamrollering towards us it was eye–opening experience to read Joshua Davis’ article about James Cameron’s new movie in Wired magazine. In case you can’t be bothered to go and read it, here’s an excerpt:

He started by hiring USC linguistic expert Paul Frommer to invent an entirely new language for the Na’vi, the blue-skinned natives of Pandora. Frommer came on board in August 2005 and began by asking Cameron what he wanted the language to sound like? Did he want clicks and guttural sounds or something involving varying tones? To narrow the options, Frommer turned on a microphone and recorded a handful of samples for Cameron.

The director liked ejective consonants, a popping utterance that vaguely resembles choking. Frommer locked down a “sound palette” and started developing the language’s basic grammatical structure. Cameron had opinions on whether the modifier in a compound word should come first or last (first) and helped establish a rule regarding the nature of nouns. It took months to create the grammar alone. “He’s a very intense guy,” Frommer says. “He didn’t just tell me to build a language from scratch. He actually wanted to discuss points of grammar.”

Thirteen months after he began work on Avatar, Frommer wrote a pamphlet titled Speak Na’vi and started teaching the actors how to pronounce the language. He held Na’vi boot camps and then went over lines one by one with each actor. “Cameron wanted them to be emotional, but they had to do it in a language that never existed,” Frommer says. If an actor flubbed a Na’vi word, Frommer would often step in with a correction. “There were times when the actors didn’t want me to tell them that they had mispronounced a word that had never been pronounced before,” he says.

With the language established, Cameron set about naming everything on his alien planet. Every animal and plant received Na’vi, Latin, and common names. As if that weren’t enough, Cameron hired Jodie Holt, chair of UC Riverside’s botany and plant sciences department, to write detailed scientific descriptions of dozens of plants he had created. She spent five weeks explaining how the flora of Pandora could glow with bioluminescence and have magnetic properties. When she was done, Cameron helped arrange the entries into a formal taxonomy.

Why? With everyone pointing out Avatar’s remarkable similarities to Dances with Wolves, Return of the Jedi, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Delgo, Battle for Terra, and now Call Me Joe, Poul Anderson’s short story from 1957 in which a paraplegic is put in control of an artificially–created life form to explore the surface of Jupiter, maybe Cameron should have obsessed less about the flora and fauna and concentrated more on creating a new and different story.

Just when you think blowing such an obscene amount of money on something so derivative is sickening it turns out Avatar is “literally vomit inducing”. Maybe this growing aversion to this new wave of films that rely on IMAX and 3D and all the shiny–shiny bells and whistles that goes with it rather than story are the first signs of me turning into an old fuddy-duddy. Instead of Avatar, this is the end of year movie that I’m most looking forward to...

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Don't Make It Difficult

I wasn’t particularly surprised to have read on the Variety website that ABC had shut down production of FlashForward for a fortnight to “boost the writing”. Having given up on the show after six episodes and seeing no reason to go back, occasionally I’d skim through Anna Pickard’s regular reviews on The Guardian’s TV & radio blog. This week she very astutely summed up the show with:

The trouble is that it just feels sometimes like an exercise for a Hollywood screen writing class. It’s like a bunch of writers were given the homework assignment: “Take the concept of FlashForward and rewrite it in a different genre every episode.” One week it’s FlashForward the action movie. Next week an experiment in murder mystery, or police procedural, or hospital soap opera. Occasionally they even seem to consider taking the concept and making decent science fiction of it. But not this week. This week it was Flashforward as romantic drama. This isn't a massive problem – but it just makes for something quite inconsistent in tone, don't you find?

While the ratings have begun to slide over here FlashForward still remains Five’s top–rated show. In the US the drama has lost over a third of its viewers, which means all the poor writers have probably had to cancel all their Turkey Day plans for this year to help get everything back on track. If they can turn it around that would be great because I still think it had a cracking pilot and a whole lot of potential even if it did inexplicably lost its way soon after. If FlashForward picks up maybe it’ll be worth giving it a second chance somewhere down the line. In its stead, rather remarkably, I’ve been giving Dollhouse another shot.

There was a drama where I’d struggled to even get through the pilot and then gave up when the second episode featured the well–worn idea of the wealthy outdoorsman eager to hunt human prey. Although everyone was soon advised to hold out for the sixth episode when the show would get a whole lot better, even dutifully coming back after weeks away it felt like too little too late. Whatever fine–tuning had been made, Dollhouse still reminded me too much of Joe 90. With Eliza Dushku appearing even more wooden than the Joe McClaine marionette, the bloom was definitely off the rose and I packed it in.

That should have been the end of it, but as my interest in FlashForward started to wane the UK’s Sci–Fi channel rather kindly dropped the second season of Dollhouse into their schedule and then hot on their heels ITV4, having obtained the terrestrial rights, started broadcasting the first year episodes. Watching the two seasons virtually back–to–back, comparing the faltering start brought on by network interference to what now appears to be a full blown Viking funeral, seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

My renewed interest came from having got to see the original pilot, which had been added on the first season’s DVD release, before the show kicked off on both channels. It goes without saying that it was vastly superior to the episode that replaced it, although having already been exposed to the concept it was difficult to know exactly what my reaction would have been to seeing it cold. I’m sure it would have left me intrigued and eager to see more, which I suppose is the point. That wasn’t the feeling I got from watching Dushku put on a pair of glasses and unconvincingly play an experienced hostage negotiator for most of the televised pilot.

The opening first season episodes aren’t especially brilliant simply because concentrating on Echo’s new persona/mission of the week and trying to work out exactly where it’s all going to go horribly pear–shaped isn’t that exciting. Although not bothering to watch the pilot (or the psychotic outdoorsman episode) again, and then getting it mixed up with the unaired pilot enlivened my viewing experience. Until it became clear that material from that unaired pilot had been apportioned amongst the next round of stories, I’d been sitting in front the television wondering why characters were having the same conversations again and again or why the FBI guy rather carelessly kept getting himself shot.

Watching them in tandem with the handful of second season episodes that were broadcast before Dollhouse was put on hold, it became pretty obvious that the concept was, at heart, far darker than the network wanted. The fact that the show got renewed always felt like a stay of execution rather than a reprieve. With Joss Whedon and his cohorts now being left to their own devices as the clock ticks down, Dollhouse has cast aside Eliza Dushku playing around in the dressing–up box, become more of an ensemble drama and dived head first into some wonderfully macabre territory.

Without the sideshow of the routine action adventure, Dollhouse has revealed itself to be a seething quagmire of moral ambiguities and ethical dilemmas. From the get–go there was always something dodgy about people signing their lives away to join the pool of “actives”, gentle hints that what they were doing wasn’t quite right. But in the last episode shown on Sci–Fi it was revealed that the Sierra doll wasn’t a volunteer, having been given the initial mind wipe against her will. To make for even more uncomfortable viewing it all culminated in the smary young scientist finding himself out in the world, away from his BIG RAT, and having to saw up the body of an unhinged client in a bathtub.

So many arguments have raged over where Dollhouse went wrong. Some said that Whedon shouldn’t have cast Dushku as the lead because she lacks the acting chops, or that he shouldn’t have got back into bed with the company that shafted him over Firefly. I’d suggest he shouldn’t have gone anywhere near network television with this subject matter but rather opted for a cable channel like AMC, FX or even Showtime.

Of course such channels may not have been able to stump up the budget required for all that nice polished wood panelling so vital to the Dollhouse set, which is obviously a big drawback. But if they signed up for a drama examining what can happen to people robbed of their basic human rights that’s what they would no doubt expect to get, rather than decide it needed more of Dushku’s pout and pushed–up breasts.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Mars Of Malcontents

The problem with staying out later than expected on Monday evening was that I didn’t get back in time to catch Enid, the BBC4 drama detailing what a raging cunt Enid Blyton apparently was, or for that matter University Challenge. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be that big a deal with iPlayer making the programmes available to watch for the next seven days or so after transmission, except for this week. Every time I went near the damned application it kept offering up Sunday’s Doctor Who special needs as a popular programme to watch.

Having that come up again and again was like checking a holiday website that kept offering up a week on a sinking ship anchored in the middle of a lake filled with raw sewage. I’d given it a wide berth last weekend, and probably would have ignored it completely if I had avoided the BBC website altogether. But after four nights of chronic insomnia I was running out of ways to occupy my time. I’d already gone through all available episodes of The Thick of It, twice, and the plan to pass remaining hours with a repeat viewing of Verdi’s Don Carlo from Friday evening, which had already made a pleasant alternative to the nonsense over on BBC1, came a cropper because it was still being listed as “coming soon”.

So I held my nose and dived right in. It was bad. Frankly, there’s no other way to describe The Waters of Mars. The only real consolation is that there have been episodes that were far worse. I’m sure there are people who will say if you don’t like it stop bloody watching! It would be easy to give it a miss but Doctor Who is like an itch I have to scratch, or more likely a scab I can’t stop picking at. I suppose because it played a part in my childhood television viewing, which were the Jon Pertwee and early Tom Baker years, I kept trying to figure out why this reinvention just doesn’t work. The Waters of Mars finally began to provide answers and certainly confirm earlier suspicions.

Four years on from when it first returned to television, Doctor Who has had its share of highs and lows. As with any long running show, some episodes really hit the heights while others plumb the depths, either brought down by inferior writing, a tight schedule or an inadequate budget, or a combination of all three. There shouldn’t be anything too unusual about that, except in this instance the person chiefly responsible for this particular catalogue of dismal failures has turned out to be none other the show’s big cheese, Russell T Davies.

It really is as simple as that. As he continued to turn out one retched episode after another over the years, with each being met with wholly unwarranted adulation, it could only mean that the really fanatical fans of the show were either extending him far too much goodwill for bringing their beloved Doctor Who back to television, and thereby overlooking the glaring inadequacies, or evidence that they wouldn’t know a good drama if it climbed out of the TV and bitch–slapped the life out of them. As I’ve said before, unconditional love simply doesn’t wash in the Good Dog kennel.

From the start it didn’t take long to realize that whenever Davies’ name appears in the opening credits the following forty–odd minutes are liable to suffer from a heady cocktail of bad storytelling that would all too frequently rely on a deus ex machina to wrap it up, useless foreshadowing, horrendously slipshod pacing and godawful character development. To make matters worse it just as quickly became apparent that he had no real understanding of science fiction either.

Whereas Steven Moffat, James Moran and Paul Cornell – who between them have written the handful of superior Doctor Who episodes – all appear to understand that however fantastical the story science fiction, as with every other genre, still has to work within set parameters, Davies output suggests such trivialities as internal logic and common sense need not apply to whatever he put down on paper. His fourth year episode Midnight for example, which fans inexplicably raved about, had an interesting and potentially terrifying premise of alien possession but was tragically let down by the utterly preposterous setting: a holiday resort in the most inhospitable environment imaginable.

Whether this is down to plain arrogance or just general ignorance, whenever the end credits roll on one of his episodes whatever was good about the story is always crucially undermined by the bad. If only there was somebody on staff with the balls to stand up to him and point out the numerous deficiencies I don’t doubt the end results would have been so much better. Watching any of the behind–the–scenes documentaries that accompanied each episode, it’s obvious that the reason he can carry on blithely churning out such nonsense without being challenged is because he surrounded himself with a crew of unashamed sycophants.

Too many people drank the Kool Aid again. (Or maybe Davies has photos of them all in “bra, suspenders and fucking blackface” which are ripe for blackmail). But the one thing that’s interesting about the few editions of Doctor Who Confidential I’ve tried my best to sit through is that when the footage gets beyond the oleaginous adoration to Davies being interviewed, once his tiresome self–promotion has been separated from the tireless promotion I get the distinct impression that he’s far more in love with The Doctor rather than Doctor Who. If that were the case it perhaps would account for why most of his stories appear so listless and contrived at times, in particular the one–hour specials that began last Christmas and continued into this year.

What The Waters of Mars and the previous one with the bus in the desert and the actress who can’t act both proved is that The Doctor needs a companion to act as a foil and a worthy adversary who can articulate their intentions rather than be reduced to an unknown, unstoppable force. In their absence, especially in the 45–minute format, he liable to come across as an arrogant and annoying know–it–all, prancing around and chewing the scenery on his way to saving the day, while everyone around him stands about like a gormless meat puppet either waiting to be saved or waiting to be offed.

I’m sure Moffat understands this, which is why both Sally Sparrow in Blink and River Song were such fully realized and memorable characters. Loathed as I am to say this, because I’ve never found her comedy remotely amusing and her persona grating, I think Catherine Tate actually worked best as The Doctor’s assistant because rather than fawning all over him like the teeth and tits that came before her, Donna Noble stood up to him on numerous occasions and questioned his decisions. That was never more evident than in the closing minutes of The Fires of Pompeii where she effectively guilt–trips him into the saving just the one family from the fiery eruption of Vesuvius.

Because The Doctor could always be counted upon to defeat whatever alien menace pitched up, the best stories from Doctor Who invariably involved a moral dilemma. Probably the most famous of all was Tom Baker debating whether to destroy the evil pepperpots in Genesis of the Daleks. Although as memory serves before he could come to a final decision a rubber tentacle wrapped itself around him and that was the end of that.

So The Waters of Mars took that argument from the final moments of The Fires of Pompeii and stretched it out across the whole episode. I suppose it’s all about The Doctor letting the power go to his head, leading to a final meltdown because he doesn’t have a human companion to keep him grounded. Before that all kicks off – with The Master apparently working as an albino secret assassin for Opus Dei – Sunday’s hour–long episode spent most of the running time treading water rather than fighting it.

Here’s a quick question: Do you get pissed off when you have a fire drill at work? They used to bug the hell out of me if the alarm went off while I was in the middle of compositing a real bitch of a scene, and personally I’ve have preferred a protocol that insisted a whole bunch of the animators were locked inside and left to burn but apparently that was against the law. Still, four or five times a year we had the drill so that in the event the studio needed to be evacuated in a hurry everyone knew exactly what to do.

That might seem an odd thing to ask but whenever Davies features the crew of a spaceship or space station in one of his adventures he never takes into account that these people are professionals who would have been relentlessly trained for worst case scenarios even if things don’t always go to plan when the time comes. Even the less than disciplined crew of the Nostromo in Alien got their act together when their lives were in danger. Whereas the personnel of the Mars base acted like they had seen the job advertised in a newsagent’s window, and wouldn’t be able to wipe their own arse without The Doctor there to lend a helping hand.

When they’re faced with an alien infection transmitted by ingestion or simply by touch, wouldn’t the first order or business be to don some form of bio–hazard suit? When they’re stuck in the command module and losing oxygen, shouldn’t one of them have the smarts to completely extinguish the fires? Instead of just getting on with it, instead of actually doing something, they just fanny around like a bunch of fucking lemons. These points may not seem like that big a deal but they illustrate the carelessness in storytelling that blight almost all of the Davies–scripted episodes while he concentrates on how ace and skill The Doctor is.

And because The Waters of Mars was all about The Doctor everyone else on site was literally expendable. Apart from Lindsay Duncan’s character they were all killing time until they started spewing water and didn’t get beyond becoming more than a brief sketch. While I could see how Captain Brooke’s heroic sacrifice on Mars could inspire her granddaughter to decide that the stars would be her destination, having her survive the explosion and then off herself back home in the front room didn’t seem like it should have the same galvanizing effect. I suppose that’s just kids for you!

On the bright side at least the frigging robot died. Glossing over its caterpillar tracks leaving Back to the Future–style burn trails on the floor in much the same way that it’s best not to point out the flames that continued to burn in the planet’s carbon dioxide–rich atmosphere, what was with the “Gadget! Gadget!” – or whatever it was the damn thing kept repeating? That would have grown old real quick out there. For a moment I thought the prick operating it (like the kiddie in the Lost in Space movie, but even more irritating) had his fingers in splints because one of the crew had had enough of the inane electronic burbling and justifiably lost it.

While its presence on the base seemed to be solely so it could be pimped to speed from A to B, it did raise the question why there wasn’t some mode of transportation for the personnel to get about inside a base that large? Flagging up the fact they couldn’t have something even as basic as a bicycle because of the “weight issue” in transporting goods and material from Earth to Mars was utterly bogus. Even when it was turned into a running gag, that explanation felt like a drop in to stifle any queries about the lack of assisted mobility.

How can the weight issue hold water when the accessways connecting the various domes were massive empty spaces that required far more construction material than necessary, not to mention the heat, light and oxygen required to make them a habitable environment? After all, rather than some flight of fancy alien palace the Mars base was, I assume, supposed to suggest a potentially convincing setting. Hopefully the answer is that budget constraints forced them to make do with what was available because otherwise it shows that the production designers and set decorators go about their work as half–arsed as the writers, putting no real thought put in to creating a credible environment.

Whatever shortcuts the production team had to make at least they didn’t fail as badly as whichever doofus had been assigned the task of creating the website obituaries for the Mars base crew that repeatedly popped up on screen. At one point I had to pause iPlayer to truly believe what I was looking at, sitting stock still while the bastard dawn chorus, which had inexplicably started chirruping at 3:30am, decided it was time for an encore. Below the main body of text a supplementary headline read:



Now I know a lot of folk, even if they bother to consider the previous criticism, will come back with the rather tiresome and well–worn mantra that it’s a family show essentially aimed at kiddies and shouldn’t be taken that seriously. When I first heard that my retort was that’s no still excuse. Back when I was a youngster I had an enquiring mind so when I discovered something new I’d bury my head in atlases and encyclopaedias to investigate further. Hopefully we all did that.

Nowadays it just seems to be a case that television programmes are more interested in serving up the most retched juvenile humour rather than something of interest, encouraging kids to be lumpen dumb shits that slump in front of the television, gobbling up the absolute worst of popular culture. That leads me the name of the Mars base in the Doctor Who episode: Bowie Base One. I get it. Life on Mars, right? Oh, ha–bloody–ha! What an utterly wasted opportunity!

I may not be that enamoured by JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels but then I’m not the target audience. And, much like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Anthony Horowitz’s series of Alex Rider spy novels, which I’m sure I would have loved to have had on my bookshelves when I was a nipper, at least all the silly wizard shenanigans has got children reading.

If only Davies could have looked beyond the stupid cheap gags maybe he would have got an inkling that – still keeping with the B – it would have been better to name the base Burroughs or Barsoom or even Bradbury. That way an enquiring mind, looking for its source, would find themselves in worlds of adventure that surpass the load of old bollocks they had just watched on TV.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pride, Pomp, And Circumstance Of Glorious War!

As darkness fell late Monday afternoon I found myself threading a path through the back streets of Soho. As scruffy and down at heel it may seem with the change of the seasons, helped on by the construction work that has taken a huge bite out of the north–east corner of the district, at least it provided a means to escape the crowded pavements of Regent Street and Oxford Street with their traditional headache–inducing, and frankly nasty, Christmas lights.

Still, the journey was worth it once I pitched up at the Soho Theatre for the BBC writersroom event featuring Stephen Poliakoff and BBC Films’ Jane Wright in conversation with Kate Rowland, BBC Creative Director of New Writing. Ostensibly to talk about how BBC Films works with writers, most of the discussion was taken up talking about Glorious 39, Poliakoff’s return to the cinema after a decade of writing and directing a string of award–winning television dramas including Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince and the more recent triptych of Joe’s Palace, A Real Summer and Capturing Mary.

The idea for Glorious 39 came to Poliakoff after he chanced upon accounts of how, when Chamberlain was still in power, the secret service had been employed to suppress any opposition to the government’s policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany by any means necessary. What would have happened, he wondered, if Lord Halifax, who also favoured such a strategy, had succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister rather than Churchill? Would he, as a Jew born in the early 1950s, ever have existed?

Set in the latter half of 1939, the film focuses on Romola Garai’s Anne Keyes, the eldest, sibling of minor aristocracy, as she unwittingly stumbles across a conspiracy amongst politicians and the upper classes at the heart of the establishment to support Chamberlain’s plan to advocate peace with Hitler at any cost. An adopted daughter rather than a true blood relation, when it becomes apparent that her MP father is linked to the conspiracy Anne discovers there is no one she can truly rely on or trust.

For Poliakoff the change from television to film meant the once the script was written filming was still a long way off as the finance had to be drummed up. Initially promoting the film at Cannes last year, the money started to come together but not as quickly as they would have liked (although Jane Wright noted that it arrived faster than usual). The UK Film Council wouldn’t pony up their share of the pot until a distributor was in place. As wise as their decision was it only added a further delay. Though the money came through, it didn’t come fast enough for the change in the seasons.

Filming didn’t start until around November of last year when the weather was particularly brutal. So the balmy summer exteriors that appear on screen had to be grabbed on the few days when the sky was clear in locations that had evergreen oak trees. When it came to shoot the dinner party held on the grounds of the estate Poliakoff mentioned that the actors seated around the table all had duvets wrapped around their legs to try and keep warm.

The budget, if you’re interested, ended up at just north of £4 million, which is probably what most Hollywood blockbusters spunk on their craft services bill. But I suppose in a time when audiences are eager to stare, boggled–eyed and slack–jawed at narratively–bankrupt, CGI–filled spectacle, a Hitchcockian thriller based on historical fact could be a hard sell. Luckily he has David Tennant in the cast along with Bill Nighy, Julie Christie and Christopher Lee, which means people more used to the typical nonsense that bowls up at the local multiplex might do themselves a favour and opt for Glorious 39.

Public speaking obviously wasn’t something Poliakoff seemed particularly comfortable with – downstairs in the bar afterwards he was twisting the customary white plastic straws behind his back as he chatted with people – but when Kate Rowland opened the floor to the audience he gave considerate and humorous answers to each question, even when the person who raised their hand wasn’t particularly clued up on his body of work. I had a brief word with him before I stepped out into the night. “See the film!”, he reminded me. Oh, I intend to.

Glorious 39 opens at the Odeon West End in Leicester Square this Friday. If you’re interested, the 7:30pm performance is followed by a Q&A with Stephen Poliakoff, Bill Nighy and Romola Garai. The film goes on general release the following week.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Facts And Fictions

Wednesday night, long after the setting of the sun, I watched a couple of documentaries shown on the BBC as part of this week of Remembrance. Both were illuminating and extraordinary, but in that latter respect for totally different reasons. First came The Children Who Fought Hitler on BBC4, which had previously been shown on the weekend. The second was a repeat of Armistice, broadcast on BBC2 immediately after Newsnight.

In the first programme the children in question were three of the sons and daughters of veterans of The Great War who had returned to Flanders to create and maintain the war grave cemeteries. Educated at the British Memorial School, established in Ypres by Old Etonians so those veterans’ offspring could receive an English education, when the Blitzkrieg tore through France in 1940, the school was forced to close leaving the pupils from the school to acquire a very different education during the war.

Armistice followed the sobering events of The Great War from the perspective of Erich Ludendorff, victor of the battle of Tannenberg who, with Hindenburg, was made joint head of the German war effort. Knowing that Germany would go under if their offensive on the Western Front failed, Ludendorff’s tactics were leading to success. When the English and French armies eventually began to work together and the tide began to turn, shaken by the death of his stepson Ludendorff tried to instigate a diplomatic endgame to the conflict but fumbled it.

Authored by Professor David Reynolds, the Professor of International History, Cambridge University, Armistice really was an astonishing piece of work. An assured presenter, Reynolds used archive footage, multiple diary entries and letters from soldiers, including a young Harry S. Truman, and location filming to present a gripping narrative that didn’t waste one second of the ninety–minute running time. As the brutality continued on the battlefields, Reynolds showed how the hard bargaining and political gambits of the allies turned the armistice into such a day of national shame and humiliation for Germany that it sowed the seeds for the horrors to come two decades on.

On a smaller scale The Children Who Fought Hitler was just as engrossing, although the title was something of a misnomer as the three ex–pupils of the British Memorial School were all in their mid to late teens. One, Jerry Eaton, had already left school and returned home to join the RAF years before war was declared. Still, it made all their stories no less compelling. While Eaton become a pilot and eventually flew Typhoons, Stephen Grady, who had remained in France, became the leader of his resistance cell, and Elaine Madden, who could speak three languages and been put aboard a fishing boat at Dunkirk, was trained to become an agent for SOE and was parachuted back into occupied Europe.

The documentary may have not had the same resources as Armistice but it had just enough archive footage of children at play at the British Memorial School to get by and, more importantly, there were the three living witnesses to tell their fascinating personal stories on camera. That should have been good enough for the programme makers, except for some reason it wasn’t. Jerry Eaton’s story could be illustrated with newsreel footage easily enough, including the film from his gun camera, but for the other two, when it came to secret activities involving the SOE and factions of the French Resistance, obviously there was never a newsreel team scuttling around after them to record the events.

Faced with this situation, other programme makers might have resorted to some basic reconstructions that could be spliced together with the interviews and whatever brief scraps of stock footage were available. Instead the makers of The Children Who Fought Hitler took a rather more unusual approach. The hour–long documentary had begun with the announcement:

This story is told using home movies, wartime newsreels and period feature films.

When the story reached the Dunkirk evacuation there was the familiar newsreel of the German military advance, with tanks rumbling through the countryside and Junkers Ju 87s peeling off and diving out of the sky, There was also the familiar footage of the convoy of British Expeditionary Force transports that had been hurriedly abandoned on the single road through the Nord Pas de Calais to the coast. With the recollections of Stephen Grady and Elaine Madden, surely this should have been enough to be going on with.

Yet for some reason the programme makers decided they needed to include clips from Leslie Norman’s 1958 film Dunkirk to supplement their existing material. First there were scenes of soldiers being flung across the beach as bombs exploded around them, then later on, there were shots of the weary Tommies queuing on the harbour’s mole as they waited to get onboard a ship. As incongruous as these scenes were, at least we only saw extras in the clips and not the stars of the film. That all changed when it came to Elaine Madden recount her time working for SOE.

Rather than have Madden appear on screen talking about her experiences they had the narrator recount her story in Occupied Europe over multiple scenes from Lewis Gilbert’s Carve her Name With Pride, even going so far as to include actual dialogue exchanges from the film. So instead of Virginia McKenna as Violette Szabo, suddenly here was Virginia McKenna usurped into playing Elaine Madden. If it started out as a mild diversion, the inclusion of so many clips turned it into a real distraction.

In a week when the BBC’s Safeguarding Trust scheme has come under fire from Stephen Poliakoff for lecturing writers how to make factually based drama in the wake of the numerous viewer deception scandals, what the makers of The Children Who Fought Hitler ended up doing felt completely inappropriate. Even with that announcement at the beginning of the documentary, which served as a get out clause, blithely hijacking somebody else’s life to tell this story, ended up doing everyone a disservice.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Title Flight

Watching Douglas Burd’s title sequence for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reminded me of just how inventive television titles used to be. Nowadays a drama is lucky if it gets the familiar brief clip reel that identifies the stars of the show interspersed with brief action sequences. Even then they still lack the razzmatazz of the titles for the shows that I watched as a kid.

Whether it was the Anderson–produced fantasy adventures that began with the puppets shows filmed in Supermarionation before the move into live action or the ITC spy and private eye dramas, the mixture of lurid graphics and action-packed recaps were sometimes more entertaining than the programme content that followed. To round it off, each sequence was backed by a distinctive theme tune composed by the likes of Edwin Astley, Ron Grainer, Barry Gray and, in the case of The Persuaders!, John Barry.

Alternatively, rather than splice together existing footage, some dramas produced original sequences that concentrated on the relationship between the lead players rather than the content. The titles for the fourth series of The Avengers, and the first to be broadcast in colour, played on the chemistry between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Even without referencing the extraordinary adventures in store, their easy charm ably showed the drama had come a long way since its dark beginnings as an offshoot from Police Surgeon.

Meanwhile the title sequence for Euston Films’ Minder perfectly captures the sometimes fractious relationship between Arthur Daley and Terry McCann that lay at the heart of the long–running drama. With their succession of wary glances, running contrary to the jauntily optimistic theme tune, the match cuts to the black and white photographs expertly sketch in the put–upon bodyguard’s background as a former boxer and jailbird. If the emphasis was squarely on McCann it only showed how unprepared everyone was to the popularity of George Cole’s dodgy dealer and his “nice little earners”.

Burd, on the other hand, had little more than a minute of screen time to sum up le Carré’s labyrinthine plot. Using a standard matryoshka doll, opening to reveal progressively irate faces until all that remains is a blank face, he skilfully encapsulates the mood of the spy drama’s search for the high–ranking mole working within the upper echelons of the British secret service. When it comes to creating a simple visual trope to capture the essence of a television drama, nothing beats Alan Jeapes’ title sequence for the BBC’s Secret Army.

I previously wrote about the drama here, but in essence the critically acclaimed series followed the exploits of a group of Belgian civilians risking their lives to help RAF aircrews shot down over occupied Europe get safely back home to England. Created by producer Gerard Glaister who had previously flown Blenheims in the North African Campaign before switching to piloting reconnaissance Spitfires, Secret Army was in part based on the Comète line set up by the 24-year-old Belgian nurse Andrée de Jongh, codenamed Dédée, and her schoolmaster father, Fredric, to ferry downed airmen from Belgium all the way to the Pyrenees.

Described by one air gunner as “the best travel agency there ever was,” over 800 of the 3000-plus airmen from Bomber Command that evaded capture, returned via the Comète line. One of them was Group Captain William Randle, who Glaister would eventually hire as the drama’s technical advisor. A Wellington bomber pilot who had been forced to bail out with his crew on their way back from a night raid on Essen, luckily the Belgian locals found Randle before he could be picked up by the Luftwaffe Polizei scouring the countryside for downed terrorfliegers.

Reunited with his rear-gunner and an RCAF observer at a safe-house in the heart of Brussels, the trio were gradually moved south over the course of the next couple of months, with de Jongh personally escorting them down through Southern France and across the mountains to Algeseras. Before setting off on their perilous journey, Randle and his fellow airmen had to supply unique information that could be passed back to London to confirm they were who they said they were and not enemy agents determined to infiltrate the secret network of escape lines.

When the Germans eventually broke Comète in 1944, Andrée de Jongh was amongst those apprehended. After being interrogated, rather than being taken out and shot she was sent first to Ravensbrueck and then Maulthausen concentration camp where she saw out the final year of the war, in her absence it was left to Micheline Ugeux, then aged nineteen, to pick up the pieces and re-establish the line to continue getting allied aircrews to safety and sheltering them from the SS.

From this wealth of background material, Glaister and his script editor John Brason fashioned a drama that emphasised the growing stress and strain exacted upon the members of the fictional Lifeline as they worked under the noses of the occupying German force, dealing with young RAF crews who proved to be a liability on the ground. With the escape line operatives having to become calculated and ruthless to survive, Secret Army never shied away from showing failed attempts at getting airmen to safety, or the compromises made which would lead to casualties on both sides.

When it came to the title sequence, Alan Jeapes, a senior designer at the BBC, favoured a low-key approach to contrast the dramatic subject matter. Inspired by the show’s theme music, an arrangement of Wall of Fear written by the Canadian composer Robert Farnon, he took a series of carefully composed images that had been taken on location in Belgium and shot on a computer–controlled rostrum camera to replicate the exponential zoom. The end result illustrated the progress of the downed airmen, from the sky and through the countryside to the welcoming lights of a safe house.

The end credits (which appear below after the episode’s final scene) continued the journey from the safe house on to the open sea, signifying the eventual escape from occupied Europe.

The Secret Army titles would deservedly earn Jeapes, who would go on to create the title sequence for EastEnders, a BAFTA Award and a D&AD Silver Award. Watching it, I wonder if we’ll ever see such well–considered, simple and effective design again.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Making a Start

In a comment to the previous post I mentioned that many new television dramas have a propensity for taking the “kick, bollock, scramble” approach to throw their audience straight into the story. Obviously this desire to grab people’s attention is a good way to keep them from reaching for the remote and checking out their competition as much as it is to get the plot rolling, but sometimes I miss the intrigue that comes with a slow, calculated build–up.

Probably my favourite opening scene has to be these two minutes leading up to the wonderfully simple and effective title sequence designed by Douglas Burd. It may be out of fashion, and I’m sure viewers with a practically non-existent attention span would blow a plug before the first thirty seconds are up, but it works a treat for me in establishing the working relationships between the quartet of Merlin case officers at The Circus.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"You've Had Your Six!"

I think I’m done with FlashForward. It started with a really intriguing idea but, a half–dozen episodes in, it just seemed that the central premise was gradually being frittered away with each successive week, leaving a confused narrative going around in circles and chasing its own tail.

It’s a crying shame really because I love a good thriller that’ll keep me on my toes, and the more labyrinthine the better. But by the end of this week’s episode the show was descending into the realms of soap opera and even farce. While a few story crumbs have been tossed toward the plodding FBI investigation there never seemed to be enough happening to keep any kind of real momentum going.

The reason it hasn’t got off the ground is that for almost all these first six episodes – which is already the first quarter of the season – it felt like the writers had repeatedly got into a huddle to argue whether the far too broad selection of onscreen characters would believe in their visions or not and that carried across into the scripts. It felt strange that whereas it’s usually the audience who decides whether they are willing to suspend their disbelief or not, in this instance it seemed to be the programme makers having the doubts.

While they noodled around, weighing up the pros and cons rather than just getting on with telling the story, the relative inactivity leaves the audience with time on their hands for second thoughts. I quite liked the idea of the FBI guy appearing a little tired and emotional in his vision. Having the ex-booze hound back on the sauce helped make him an unreliable witness to the future events. But the more they kept banging on about it the more suspect it became.

Was it the babysitter who was being drowned by some bruiser in her vision? When she came to in the pilot episode I don’t remember her immediately struggling and gasping for breath, which suggests that for those couple of minutes she saw the future rather than experienced it. If that’s the case, wouldn’t it mean that even if the FBI man was in his cups in the future he would still be sober when he had the flash forward and therefore shouldn’t have a problem remembering it?

Either way I don’t really care anymore, but it was the failure to get the story moving that led me to dwell on what little information there was and scrutinize it for any potential flaws. That shouldn't even have been an issue, but as I’ve said earlier, I still think the major fault with FlashFoward was that it began with too much bash and crash and smash, spreading out amongst far too many characters too soon, rather than make some effort to start establishing the key players.

So there it is, FlashForward has had its six and that’s it for me. You have to figure something had gone horribly awry when the most entertaining scene so far involved a karaoke version of Sister Christian, while the most ludicrous was the underground garage shoot–out that took place almost immediately afterwards. With that sort of juxtaposition you can’t exactly accuse FlashForward of lacking in imagination. It’s a shame then that so far the show’s failing is that it simply lacks vision.