Saturday, February 27, 2010

Between a Slave To Dreams And a Servant Of Regrets

Apparently from today I've reached the age where I have all my five senses in the keeping of my wits.

I’m not actually sure I got that memo, but I’m happy to play along.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Risk And Reward

One thing I realize I didn’t mention in the previous post regarding my aversion to the American television schedule was the late night programming. The first time I stayed in New York for an extended period I was introduced to The Tonight Show and although Johnny Carson was by then a national institution, frankly I didn’t exactly see the appeal.

A few years later, after Carson’s retirement, I got into watching Letterman simply because Jay Leno was as entertaining as staring at a baked potato in a microwave oven that wasn’t working but even then I could only take all the shtick and banter with the band and the guests coming on to shill their latest book or film or TV show in small doses. It was bad enough seeing that abroad, where the best way to avoid it was stay in the bar, but worse was finding those same routines infect British chat shows where the guests became an instrument for the self–aggrandizing hosts to make it all about them.

I suppose this aversion was because I had grown up watching proper interviews where the host was actually interested in what the guest had to say and the guest was happy to engage in a dialogue with them. At that early age, the king of the UK chat show was Michael Parkinson whose shows always featured an occasional eclectic mixture of interesting personalities who didn’t see their appearance as simply another pit stop on a tiring promotional tour. When Parkinson went off the air in 1982 the competition dotted around the schedules was more about entertainment than simply listening to what people had to say, turning the spoken word into background muzak.

It wasn’t until the end of the decade that the BBC tried to redress the balance by resurrecting Face to Face. I hadn’t been around when the series first debuted, hosted by the former politician John Freeman who rarely appeared on screen as the camera concentrated on the interviewee rather than cutting back and forth between the pair. With Jeremy Isaacs taking over as inquisitor the series may not have had the impact of the original but still managed to produce some astonishing interviews, most particularly the moving edition with Paul Eddington broadcast a month before his untimely death in late 1995 from non–Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

All these years later I can still remember the actor, after discussing his life and career, from his Quaker roots to his celebrated sitcom roles as Jerry Leadbetter and Jim Hacker, consider his legacy and admit that for an epitaph he had decided upon: “He did very little harm,” which is not always an easy thing to achieve in this life. In a way it was a reminder of Melvyn Bragg’s affecting interview with Dennis Potter shown on Channel 4 the previous year. Defiantly chain–smoking and breaking off to swig liquid morphine to ease the pain from the pancreatic and liver cancer (which he gleefully announced he had named in honour of Rupert Murdoch), the playwright used this one last time in front of the cameras to show what a master of the medium he was.

Knowing his days were clearly numbered, Potter revelled in the things that made life worth living: the “blossomest blossom” he could see from his office window and the cigarettes that still remained “lovely tubes of delight”. When it was decided that life was too short even to shoot Murdoch if he could when there was work still to do, Potter gently pressured the BBC and Channel 4 to produce Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, his final pair of interconnecting plays, which he hoped would be a fitting memorial to his life’s work in the arts. Anyone who watched the programme would agree it stood head and shoulders about the inane chit–chat and worthless trivialities that polluted the current talk show format.

This past decade, carrying on from Face to Face we’d had the irregular series of Mark Lawson Talks To interviews on BBC4, continuing to fight a corner for intelligent and revealing conversation. Having just two people in chairs with cameras pointed at them, actually talking about something relevant continues to show what a difference it makes without having an audience of gurgling chuckleheads that both host and guest feel they have to play to and keep entertained in case those boobs start having a temper tantrum because nobody is paying them the slightest attention.

If anyone thinks having a live audience is a good thing, this past Tuesday showed that kind of reasoning needs to be adjusted with a few sharp whacks of a croquet mallet. For anyone here who wasn’t listening to Brian Sibley and Lord Puttnam discuss the current state of the movie business on Radio 2 in their decade–on sequel to David Puttnam’s Century of Cinema, on BBC4 Mark Lawson was sitting down with actor Brian Cox for an incredibly revealing talk that capped an evening of programming that included the documentary Brian Cox’s Jute Journey and the political drama On Expenses, which featured Cox as Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House of Commons forced to resign over the MP’s expenses scandal.

Meanwhile, across the water on CBS’s The Late Late Show Craig Ferguson, who is rapidly turning out to be the most interesting of the late night chat show hosts by not pandering to the absolute dregs of the lowest common denominators, tried an intriguing experiment. Maybe his competitors should give it a go once in a while if the results are going to be this damn good...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lost Interest

I’d always find it amusing when, during a frank exchange about whether American television drama is better than the English product, the witless maroon desperately trying to convince me that Casualty is better than ER or Doctor Who knocks spots off Battlestar Galactica eventually resorts to blurting out: “Well, if you like American television so much, why don’t you bloody well live there!” At that point any kind of ongoing argument is over.

Once that specific retort rears its ugly head, making me out to be a traitor to the mother country, there’s simply no reason to continue. But the fact is that my reply to their outburst wouldn’t have done either of us any favours or helped the discussion one jot. If we carried on I’d eventually have to admit that while I heartily champion many of their dramas and comedies I simply can’t stand American television, or rather the American television schedule.

Back when I was out there for extended periods – whether it was time spent in New York or Burbank, or even the weeks in the rented house in Key West while the ex–girlfriend and soon to be ex– earned their scuba diving certificates – there was never one whole evening spent indoors vegging out in front of the television simply because it would drive me up the wall. Usually the set would be switched on for Jeopardy or a Seinfeld rerun (if there was one going) to play in the background while we prepared to head out to dinner or a movie or simply to hit the bars.

One night I even sat in a theatre, slack jawed, as a Manhattan–based amateur dramatics society utterly massacred Gilbert and Sullivan, and then had to go out to dinner with the jubilant players after their curtain call, as an alternative to staying in and watching the box. The simple reason was that, before the influx of reality shows that are blotted about like a virulent fungal infection, the network primetime schedules were just a massive stodge of dramas and sitcoms. If there was the odd new episode I would make a point of catching, I’d rarely want to sit through another drama or another comedy immediately afterwards.

So what it came down to was the utter lack of variety in the schedules. There were no quizzes or panel shows to help mix things up and, more importantly, no decent documentaries. Flicking through the many channels, whenever I alighted upon something that might have fitted the bill, it was either sensationalist nonsense or seemed to be specifically infantilized for the particularly hard of thinking. Obviously you can’t please all the people all the time, but in the end I’d always be happy to pack up and catch the flight home just to watch some factual programming that didn’t treat me like I was a complete imbecile.

Once the television channels got their breath back after the usual nonsense of Christmas and New Year, which this time around required David Tennant to appear in just about every damn programme going, some particularly fine documentary series started to arrive, but what about the drama? Two decades on from the 1990 Broadcasting Act, every year seems like another sharp kick in the balls for anyone wanting more than just seeing hour upon hour of ordinary folk recounting their woes over a pint or being cheered with a nice cup of tea, or another familiar round of carriages and corsets and uniquely English whodunnits.

In my argument that US television drama generally bettered its UK counterparts, what I’ll always try and get across to those raving spittle–flecked loons unwilling to consider my point of view was the more inventive and original nature of the American material, whether in story or setting. Whenever a British series tries something different the idea somehow never seems to be entirely thought through, like Survivors, which was populated by too many characters that didn’t appear to have the smarts to get through a normal day let alone cope in the wake of a devastating pandemic.

One of the many problems I had with the recent remake of The Day of the Triffids was having the characters being written as a bunch of dunderheads unable to cope with the situation and eking cheap drama out of their rudimentary mistakes. Years ago I took some screenwriting classes scheduled for one evening a week just to get away from being in the studio all hours. For the penultimate class our tutor asked everyone to bring in favourite film sequences that were devoid of dialogue. I took along Michael Mann’s Thief, cued up to the Los Angeles diamond heist that James Caan’s Frank agrees to do for the Chicago crime boss Leo.

It’s difficult to watch clips out of context at the best of times but once the job was done and Frank pulled up a chair and lit a welcome cigarette, when the tutor asked the rest of the class what they thought, almost all of them hated it. Asked why, nearly all the responses boiled down to the fact that because Frank and his crew were experts the robbery went to plan. When they lit the thermal lance to burn through the vault door nobody accidentally caught on fire, nor did and the police get wind of the heist and come bursting in before they had the gems. I tried to explain that because they had such a particular skill set their problems would appear on a different level from amateur crooks but they weren’t having it.

I think my problem with most new original British dramas is they lack cleverness, or at least the kind of cleverness that I look for. Are people scared by intelligence? Or don’t they like to be made to think, instead wanting any old nonsense that they can stare glassy–eyed at as their day winds down? When that’s what they’re given, because the numbers say it’s what they want, television drama over here isn’t going to get better but worse. Aside from documentaries and news, I currently watch the BBC channels just for the Monday night double bill of University Challenge and Only Connect and the XL version of QI. Everything else is just the wrong kind of mulch and ITV1 and Channel 4 don’t even figure on my radar anymore.

Still, that doesn’t mean I blindly gorge on imported shows to make up the shortfall. As new seasons arrived in the New Year, I was surprised by how many dramas I’ve given up on and stopped watching. Some I’ve grown tired of over the past few years, either because they’ve become too predictable or simply gone off the boil, so that struck House, Heroes and 24 off the list. Others, like Fringe, Big Love and True Blood, I just didn’t take to. Joining them now is Leverage. It recently arrived on Bravo with a great pilot but two or three episodes in turned out to be not that much better than Hustle, which had a reasonably decent first year based on the novelty factor and then snuffed that out by coming back, again and again, with just the same old, same old.

So that just leaves me with only a handful of dramas worth watching, and the one thing almost all the shows share, apart from the smart writing and fine performances, is a subject matter we don’t ordinarily see over here in the UK. Watching the new third season of Mad Men on BBC4 it had me wondering why there hasn’t been a British drama set in an advertising agency other than Les Blair’s Honest, Decent & True, broadcast in the Screen Two strand almost a quarter of a century ago. Obviously there’s more to Matthew Weiner’s drama, with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce the backdrop for characters creating a new image and identity for themselves, turning their lives into an ongoing campaign, but that kind of work arena is particularly fertile ground.

Having worked at a design and advertising consultancy during the fag end of the 1980s before (quite literally) taking flight – and followed that with the years working on commercials – I’ve met my fair share of “creatives”, account managers and producers, along with clients so utterly witless they deserved to be fleeced for every penny on campaigns that weren’t as significant as everyone made out. Though most were best categorized as pond scum there were still enough intriguing characters with a handle on what they were doing to make it interesting. They may have been more brash and self–important than most ordinary folk but that kind of behaviour isn’t exactly exclusive to their line of business.

Yet when it comes to a homegrown attempt at using an advertising agency milieu we get the BBC Two sitcom The Persuasionists. On the evidence of the ten minutes I sat, stony–faced through, this garbage was not only devoid of comedy but a basic grasp of advertising, resorting to every stale cliché in the book. No wonder it got kicked from its original time slot and bounced around the schedules as the remaining episodes were burnt off. Compared to Channel 4’s superior Free Agents from last year, where a talent agency setting allowed supporting characters to be spectacularly reprehensible in an environment that tolerates such behaviour, while the leads dealt with more familiar trials, The Persuasionists looked even more pathetically obvious and slovenly thought out.

If intelligence is frowned upon it also seems that ordinariness is valued over invention in ongoing drama. When did adult UK drama step away from creativity? By that I don’t mean blowing the lid off the dressing–up box or splashing out on extravagant sets. Some time back I chanced upon an episode of Waterloo Road, an incredibly pointless Grange Hill–for–grownups as far as I could tell. It reminded me how much fun Channel 4’s anarchic Teachers had been, at least until the more interesting actors jumped ship and the fizz quickly fizzled out. Although in retrospect the increasingly bad behaviour of the staff at Summerdown Comprehensive turned out to be rather tame in comparison to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad.

Sure, the mid–life crisis scab has occasionally been picked at over here but it usually resorts to the predictable, involving wives being trading in for younger models, flash cars, and men acting like complete cocks. Nothing has approached the wonderful extreme of Vince Gilligan’s drama in which a middle–aged Albuquerque high school teacher, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, teams up with one his none too bright ex–pupils to cook up and sell crystal meth to provide for the pregnant wife and child he’ll leave behind. While it would be wrong to say that hilarity always ensues, at the very least Breaking Bad is a good learning experience, especially if you want to know the best way to dissolve a body in restrictive surroundings.

Having the show’s second year stripped into FiveUSA’s Christmas schedule was an unusual and sometimes somewhat inconvenient festive treat, but once the thirteen–episode season was hastily gobbled up it left a void that has only recently been filled with Sons of Anarchy. There have been many adaptations of Shakespeare in the past – some years ago the BBC updated a quartet of plays in Shakespeare Retold, an idea which seemed like an afterthought to the contemporary versions of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – but Kurt Sutter’s loose take on Hamlet steamrollers over the lot of them by shifting the setting from Elsinore to the small Californian town of Charming and turning the characters into the local chapter of the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle gang, running guns and keeping unwelcome drug dealers off the streets.

Could we make something like either of those two shows over here? Probably not, simply because the tiny–minded middle Englanders who cuddle up to the comfortable, inoffensive stories that hark back to the golden days of Albion would no doubt become apoplectic if some comparable subject matter appeared on screen. But I think the other contributory factory is the scale of landscape where “bad guys” – for the most part the more interesting characters – can go about their business. With everyone virtually looking over each other’s shoulders and the net curtains twitching, this kind of extreme behaviour would make for a lively episode of Midsomer Murders but by the end any survivors would be in shackles and the status quo would be redressed.

Obvious the subject matter tends toward particularly brutal situations. Five episodes in Sons of Anarchy has seen a Korean Elvis impersonator taking a severe beating, a rapist having his balls posted to the victim’s father, and an ex–gang member having his SOA tattoo forcibly removed with an acetylene torch. For all the savage violence, it’s saved from being simply gratuitous by good storytelling and well–judged comic relief to counterpoint the sturm und drang that doesn’t tip over into clumsy broad comedy, best exemplified by rookie gang member Juice who has so far woken up in only a giant nappy with the sign ‘slightly retarded child, please adopt me’ stuck to his chest after accidentally doped himself up, and then spiked a piece of meat meant to knock out a rabid guard dog with meth.

Joining the watch list, provisionally, is Caprica. I’ve never been an especially big fan of sequels and prequels less so because the former are usually unnecessary and the latter even more unnecessary. Hampered by continuity and lacking in real suspense, most simply exist as callous money–spinners to extend a story that has reached its natural conclusion. But with the clock running down on Dollhouse and Eleventh Hour over here we really need some more intelligent science fiction to step into their place. Otherwise what’s the alternative? Stargate Universe? The only fun I got out of that was discovering Joseph Mallozzi, one of the show’s writers and consulting producers was actively soliciting input for the next season from the fans. What a complete maroon!

At least Caprica has an intriguing premise to work with, stirring up a mix of hedonism, technology and hubris that we know is going to end badly for everyone involved. Dealing with those issues means it’s far removed from the silly alien guff that turns science fiction into the sort of twisted masquerade ball that should only intrigue children still learning to crawl. With only the Adama family a direct link to the characters in Battlestar Galactica it removes itself far enough from the original series. As long as it doesn’t stray too far into the twatty teen preserve favoured by the likes of Smallville it might be interesting to see life in the Colonies before the fall. Although the moment a young Laura Roslin appears in William Adams’ classroom I’ll be lunging for the remote.

After that, all that’s left is Lost. A few days after the final season kicked off I was out with the usual crowd, meeting up at the BFI Southbank. Retiring to The Riverfront bar I gauged their opinion on the two–part opener only to find none of them had actually caught it. In fact amongst those who once watched it, almost all had given up years ago. The relatively lacklustre third year when the narrative seemed to be stretching itself out had been the tipping point, in fact it seemed to be the time when most people bailed on the show. I suspect if it had carried on that way I might have thrown in the towel as well but then producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof went to the network and asked to set an end date for the show.

That was probably the smartest thing the pair ever did. After all, American television is not exactly an environment conducive to drama that strives to have a specific beginning, middle and end. If the show is a hit the network is going to want to keep it on the air for as long as possible. That’s fine for something specifically character–driven or one that has season–long story arcs, but a drama that specifically knows where it’s going usually finds itself having to pad out the mid–section. When that goes into effect there’s the danger audiences will turn off because it’s started going nowhere fast meaning that in all likelihood the show will be cancelled before the planned resolution, which means that in the end nobody benefits.

So when Lost was perceived to be treading water and the numbers went down the pair brokered a deal for two more seasons worth of episodes spread over three years that piqued my interest. Once that was in place, Lost was off to the races. I’d always been amused by folk whose excuse for bailing on this or any other show was because the believed the writers were “just making it up as they go along!” With everything else going on in life, trying to remember how a drama began when you’re three years down the line is tricky at the best of times. When FlashForward came out and fucked it up so badly, I went back and watched the first few episodes and it’s pretty much all there in embryonic form waiting to be realized.

What I was most surprised by was how the flashbacks, which the audience was lulled into thinking were simply a device to help establish the characters and their connections as well as provide an alternative to everyone standing around amongst jungle vegetation, prepared viewers for the far–reaching time shifts that occurred throughout the previous year and the current “flashsideways” or whatever it is the alternate reality sequences are being classified as. Adding this new dimension to what is already a particularly mind–bending narrative, it’s obvious that with only a dozen episodes left Lost isn’t going to ease up and coast toward the finish line.

Perverse as it may sound, I hope we don’t get answers to absolutely everything. When this Chinese puzzle box is finally unlocked I want a satisfactory resolution for the characters rather than a checklist of all the incidentals. But then what do I know; I was happy there was no explanation regarding Starbuck in the finale of Battlestar Galactica.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I've Loved You So Long

February is always the cruellest month for me. If it was simply down to the fact that I was just dog–tired of the long dark nights and bitter cold then I’d be pleased for there to be such a simple explanation. Instead there are many more components that entangle me in this pit of introspection, most of which I’ll try not to bore you with.

This time around I thought I’d found the perfect antidote to pass all this by, but as it turned out that wasn’t the case. It should of, but rooting around in the filing cabinets for some pertinent background material I happened upon a file filled with the many cards and handwritten letters from The One That Got Away. If I’d had any sense I’d have seen what the contents were and then pushed it to the back of the drawer. But for anyone who has read just a few months of these posts will know that, to put it not so delicately, she is the itch I cannot stop scratching.

There is a valid reason for being unable to let the memory of her go, rather that it simply being some silly fancy. So I have that, not that it really does me any good. When we started going out, initially kept apart by holidays in the Far East on her part, long hours working on The Rabbit on mine, and then only seeing each other twice or (at best) three times a week, we’d fill in the gaps by writing each other letters about the day we’d had to whatever came to mind. Now I suppose it would be done with emails or texts of these ridiculous tweets so I suppose I should be grateful in a way for having this sheaf of missives, all gracefully written with a fountain pen.

Being very careful and selective as I leafed through the pages, I happened upon the very first note she had sent me, not long after I had graduated and just months before my first short story was to be published in a new anthology. Giving only her address and no telephone number, necessitating a written reply (which I suppose is where the continued correspondence started off), she had written:

They told me today that you write;
so what do you write?

Yours faithfully


very, very nearly third year graphics

Just reading that again earlier this evening, the peremptory nature of the letter made me smile until I glanced up at the date written in the top left hand corner of page before the address: 20/07/87. Had it been that long? That’s now just over half my lifetime ago. Obviously there’s no way to go back and change the past, more’s the pity, but I wonder – especially at the end of a day like today – if things would have been better if I’d never fed that very first sheet of paper into the typewriter and just got on with designing cereal boxes instead.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Filled With Wonder

A month into 2010 and there hasn’t been much UK television drama to stimulate me. I’m sure there are folk who would excitedly point me in the direction of Being Human on BBC3 but it just doesn’t do anything for me. The idea of a ghost, vampire and werewolf cohabiting reminded me of a comic strip that appeared, possibly, in either Buster or Whizzer and Chips when I was a nipper, or worse, brought back more recent memories of Van Helsing.

Instead it has been the slew of documentaries that has kept me going, beginning with Dan Snow’s intriguing Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World and the spectacular Great Rift: Africa's Wild Heart from the BBC Natural History Unit. A historian and accomplished sailor, Snow’s four–part series began with the victory over the Spanish Armada and continued through the centuries to the arrival of the Dreadnought, kicking off an arms race with Germany that culminated in the battle off the Jutland peninsula in 1916 that routed the German navy.

Having little more than a layman’s knowledge of English naval history; knowing the key figures like Nelson, Captain Cook, Drake, and Walter Raleigh – having spent some years of my childhood living in the Devonshire village he grew up in – and numerous conflicts like the defeat of the Armada, the War of Jenkins’ Ear and Cape Trafalgar, Empire of the Seas was a revelation as it expertly joined the dots and filled in the blanks. With the schedules now filled with reality crap and lifestyle cobblers, it’s always refreshing to find a programme with a presenter who knows what they are talking about, rather than simply being a familiar face to help the audience along, and teaches you something.

Starting with the Westcountry freebooters who were gradually turned into a working navy thanks to Samuel Pepys’ administrative skills, the episodes charted the rise and fall and rise of an institution that created Britain’s first credit boom and revolutionised the country as it charted the Antipodes and opened up trade routes with such a degree of mastery that led to Britannia ruling the waves. Through all the victories and defeats, Snow’s infectious enthusiasm keeps the series going. Although I’ve only seen relatively few of his previous onscreen appearances, Snow has already turned into one of those presenters that has you thinking, “Damn, I wish he had been one of our teachers at school!”

If you’re interested, the four hours that comprise Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World is available on the BBC iPlayer until 7:59pm, Wednesday 17th February. Also available is The Golden Age of Liners from the ninth series of Time Shift, which was repeated on Sunday night on BBC4 as part of a trio of travel documentaries that then took to the air with High Flyers: How Britain Took to the Air, celebrating the golden age of air travel, before rounding off with the utterly beguiling Around the World by Zeppelin.

Entitled Farewell in some territories, the ninety–minute documentary follows the Graf Zeppelin as it circumnavigated the world in August of 1929. Bankrolled by William Randolph Hearst, the three–week–long journey is shown through the eyes of the young English journalist Lady Grace Drummond–Hay who was an employee of the Hearst media empire and the only woman amongst the twenty passengers onboard. Using extracts from her diaries and reports for narrations and made up of archive footage, Around the World by Zeppelin is one of the most astonishing pieces of material I’ve seen in a long while.

Although it turns out that Ditteke Mensink, the documentary's Dutch director, has taken a few liberties with the truth it doesn’t detract from the sheer majesty of the piece. More astonishing is the fact that it only happened just over eighty years ago. Repeated this evening on BBC4, starting at 8:30pm, it really is worth missing Holby City for.