Ten TV Programmes that “Made Me”

A few weeks ago, I was tagged to take part in one of those Facebook games where you have to create a cultural list over 10 days. It may be favourite books, it may be films or other things. In this case it was the TV programmes which “made me” – which I interpreted as being those with the greatest influence on my life, rather than my all-time top ten. I chose to take a chronological approach, spreading the choices fairly evenly across the decades, and explained my choice in each case. I am reproducing my posts below as I wrote them, partly because they make a reasonably coherent narrative, but mainly because there is so little currently on TV that I want to blog about, so I might as well re-cycle something I’ve already written. My first blog on this site, 11 months ago, was about last year’s “glorious summer” of great TV shows. This summer, by contrast, is a drought, both literally and televisually, so let me take you back through time instead…..

Day 1

MV5BMDg3N2U5NDAtYzVmMy00NmQ3LThmNDktOGQ0ZTNmYjg5M2JjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDgyNjA5MA@@._V1_

It’s November 23rd 1963 and the 10-year-old me is really at a loose end. Somebody important was shot in America yesterday and all my favourite Friday night programmes, even Bootsie and Snudge, were cancelled! Things aren’t much better today, but there’s a new programme starting at teatime which looks intriguing, so I’ll give it a go. That new programme, Doctor Who, expanded my imagination like nothing on television had done before. There was mystery and menace in every dark corner of the monochrome screen. I was hooked for the rest of the sixties, through the Hartnell and Troughton years (I still think Troughton is the best Doctor, though Capaldi came close). I rather drifted away from it after that, but then it became a professional concern when, as the BBC’s TV Archivist, I became involved in the search for missing episodes in the 1980s (with some success, including some of the earliest dalek episodes). And, of course, I’ve been a fan since it was revived by Russell T.Davies earlier this century. It is one of three titles on my list first transmitted in 1963/4 which have been with me throughout my life and are still going strong. I will post about the second one tomorrow but leave the third (which is very dear to me) until the end of my list.

Day 2

images

Today’s choice is my TV equivalent of comfort food – a programme which I have watched (and occasionally fallen asleep in front of) most Saturday nights since I first caught the football bug in the mid-sixties (and that’s “soccer” to my American friends!). It’s a bug I have never shaken off – in fact, the infection becomes more severe with every passing year. Through it all, MOTD has been a constant – the familiar theme tune, the presenters (Kenneth, David, Jimmy, Des and Gary), the commentators (Motty), the pundits (Hansen, Shearer) the “goal of the month” competition. The quality of the coverage has developed, but the format stays much the same. It’s officially the longest running football programme in the world. My favourite period? – probably the seventies, when it was the closing part of the legendary BBC1 Saturday night schedule. My favourite edition? – has to be the one when the Bees led the show thanks to an FA Cup upset over Premier League opposition. I just can’t wait until we reach the Premier League (as we will) and feature every week!

Day 3

images-1

Today, “It’sssss…….” – the big one! The one programme which I would say “made me” more than any other. If I was doing this by importance rather than chronologically, this would be top. Just as so much of our language contains phrases and sayings that originate in Shakespeare, so barely a day goes by without my regular discourse containing something that can be traced back to Python, whether in conversation or commenting on Facebook. You may have noticed – maybe not. But it doesn’t stop there. My entire world outlook is influenced by this show – my general air of flippancy, of not taking anything too seriously, of always immediately looking for the funny side of any situation, the cheerful atheism, the always looking on the bright side. It hit me at exactly the right time, between reaching the end of my school days and going on to university. I was never one for going on street demos, but I did take part in a mass “silly walk” through the streets of Oxford. I had been a big TV comedy fan throughout the sixties, especially things like Not Only, But Also, but this was on a whole new level. At times, I laughed so much it was painful, and so much of it still gives that reaction. The first season was a revelation from the start, but the gradual development of the stream of consciousness style throughout that run is what made it so compelling. If I have a favourite sketch it may be the argument, which is pure poetry, as well as being one of the many Cleese/Palin highlights. So, time’s up….No it isn’t!

Day 4

safe_image.php

So, it’s late 1973 and I am into the final year of my degree in Modern History – there are some wonderful lectures by the great historian AJP Taylor on the Second World War. But then a mammoth TV documentary series arrives which presents the same serious history in a way that is so much more compelling and direct than any book or lecture could be. I’d like to tell you that, in that moment, I resolved to spend a life’s career working in film and television archives, but it wouldn’t be true. Nevertheless, the seed was sown and after I had embarked on that course some five years later, I never lost any opportunity to cite TheWorld at War as an inspiration. It remains the beacon in terms of the use of archive material – research, selection, correct presentation and attribution – something which became a bit of a professional obsession to me, to the extent that I would bore my fellow Peabody jurors to tears over it in later years. It was the work of many fine historians, writers and producers, but the guiding hand was that of a TV hero of mine – Jeremy Isaacs, who ran the programme department of Thames TV, one of our major commercial broadcasters, as though it were a PSB and then invented the ethos of Channel 4. I was fortunate to be the organiser of a 75th birthday tribute to him at the National Film Theatre in 2007 and spent many fascinating hours with him selecting and editing the clips for that event. The pitch-perfect narration by Olivier, the haunting score by Carl Davis – everything is right about TheWorld at War.

Day 5

safe_image-1.php

There had to be a Dennis Potter on my list. Yes, The Singing Detective is his masterpiece, but Pennies from Heaven is arguably the greater leap of imagination as to what could be done with a TV drama series and it does mean more to me personally. It was transmitted just a couple of weeks after I joined the BBC in 1978. I had immediately begun to take a closer interest than previously in the BBC’s output (after all, this was the material I was now handling every day) and a new Potter was a big event. I was mesmerised and immensely proud that I now worked for an organisation which could produce such a thing. I was pretty obsessed with exploring the art of film at the time, to the exclusion of most else, but here was a studio-based TV drama which could engage me, entertain me and make me think just as much, if not more, than the greatest cinema. The use of popular songs of the thirties, mimed by the actors to express the characters’ thoughts and hopes or as an ironic commentary on the narrative was revolutionary and never bettered. Thought for today: “Though things may not look bright, they’ll all turn out alright, if I keep painting the clouds with sunshine”.

Day 6

safe_image-2.php

I’ll say it up front. For me, this is the greatest TV drama series of them all. Some people will tell you it is a film – made on 35mm by a film director, Edgar Reitz – and, indeed, I first saw it in a cinema. But it was co-produced by TV companies, WDR and SFB of (then) West Germany and is clearly designed for television presentation in 11 parts of irregular length – the shortest under an hour, the longest almost two and a half – and, in that respect, it anticipates by 30 years the sort of thing now being produced for streaming platforms. Reitz went on to make 2 sequel series, a prequel and some spin-offs, but none of them matched the ambition and historical sweep of the original. Telling the story of a village in the Hunsruck from 1918 to the early 1980s, it is basically German history in the turbulent 20th century in microcosm, seen through the eyes of a number of ordinary families. There are elements of soap opera about it, which is partly what makes it so effective. Who will survive the war? How much did ordinary Germans know (or care) about the crimes of the Nazis? How did technological advances like radio, telephones, motorways and TV affect their lives? The trivial is given the same attention as the momentous, and the weight of memory accumulates. Some characters are played by several actors, others by the same one through the whole series, but you get closely involved with them all.

Day 7

hqdefault

Having reached the period of my life when the assessment of the significance of television programmes was my professional concern, it becomes harder to isolate individual titles which had a particular effect on my attitudes, not because there are too few, but because there are too many. I choose The Royle Family because it pioneered the metamorphosis of the sitcom into the half-hour comedy/drama. It dispensed with the studio audience and the laughter track, even though it hardly ever left the single set – the front room of a Manchester terraced house – and relied on the brilliance of its writing and characterisation to capture you, to make you laugh, and sometimes to make you cry. Many of the programmes I most treasure from the last two decades owe it a debt – from Getting On and the work of Stefan Golaszewski to Fleabagand Detectorists. At a time when TV drama was reaching a new plateau by becoming cinematic, these programmes (and their US equivalents from Louie to One Mississippi), by virtue of their duration, expanded the dramatic and comedic possibilities of a purely televisual form. And, of course, the Royles constantly referenced TV itself because watching TV was what they were doing most of the time, just like those of us watching them. Post-modernism, my arse!

Day 8

fullsizeoutput_4d

Today’s choice is for my daughter Hanna as well as myself. One of the joys of having a daughter with learning disabilities is the extended childhood, with the result that I have been watching programmes for kids for much longer than most parents – not only that, but many of the same things again, again, again – so that I have come to appreciate how well-crafted and subtle the best of them are. I have reached the stage when I am keenly anticipating the next offering from that crazy genius Andrew Davenport, but my two favourites have to be Charlie and Lola and Peppa Pig. I chose Peppa because, whereas Charlie and Lola has wonderful visuals and music, Peppa has the better humour, which is firmly aimed at the kids but with the occasional wink towards the adult audience. It doesn’t moralise – just presents family and school life though animated animals. There’s even the occasional political satire, such as the school’s International Day, when Madame Gazelle (brilliant name) gets the children to dress up as different nationalities to promote peace and harmony, but they end up arguing over access to the sandpit. The voiceover artists include the Welsh contingent from Absolutely, Morwenna Banks and John Sparkes, plus the familiar tones of Brian Blessed, Andy Hamilton and others. And if I were to be asked which TV character I most identify with it would have to be Daddy Pig – a genial everyman constantly out of his depth and something of a British equivalent to Homer Simpson. I didn’t expect such a programme to become a big part of my life at this stage, but ultimately everybody loves jumping up and down in muddy puddles.

Day 9

safe_image-5.php

So, there I was, six or seven years from the end of my career in television archiving/curation and drifting along happily towards retirement, doing much the same as I had for the last 25 years, when something wonderful happened. I was invited to join the Peabody Board of Jurors. Not only did this involve engaging with American TV in much, much greater depth than I had before, but also enhancing my critical approach in order to participate in the rigorous and exhilarating board discussions. It also coincided with an explosion of creativity in US output, both drama and documentary, driven by cable and online platforms. So, I got to see masses of marvellous programmes, many of which I either followed thereafter or caught up with in full, and The Leftovers has to be my favourite of them all. In the same way as another favourite recent drama, the French series Les Revenants, The Leftovers uses a supernatural event to explore questions of grief, love, relationships, spirituality and the search for meaning in a meaningless universe. It appeals to atheists like me and believers alike because there are no answers but lots of questions, asked in the most strikingly imaginative and dramatic way possible. Max Richter’s score is outstanding and the acting and direction uniformly brilliant. The ending, appropriately after three series, is overwhelming and open to multiple interpretation, but I choose to let the mystery be.

Day 10

90

This is the only thing I could have as my final choice. It reaches back to where I started (Seven Up was transmitted in 1964), but it justifies its place at the end of my chronology because it also represents the future – 63 Up is due to air next spring and I really can’t wait. To say this is a programme that “made” me doesn’t quite get it: it is me, just as it is countless others of my generation. Like a short-period comet, it returns every seven years and each return is more momentous than the last. I can find points of identification with every one of the participants, and they are only three years younger than me, so seeing their lives develop in parallel with my own and against the backdrop of the same social, political and technological changes, and regularly looking back on how they got to where they are, is an incredibly moving experience. Leaving seven years between each catch-up is a stroke of genius, because they can get back to normal lives away from the media spotlight (though their fame has impacted in some ways on some of them). We know there has been the first death among the group since the last visit, so it may start to get a little painful, but Michael Apted is the perfect intermediary – I wish him extreme longevity, so that he can go on making the series. I am very proud to have been part of the Peabody Board which gave the series an institutional award (the same year, coincidentally, that my first choice, DoctorWho, was similarly honoured). The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is British television’s greatest achievement.

So, there you have it – three dramas, two comedies, two docs, two children’s programmes and one sports show to sum up TV’s influence on my life.

VAR Out!

images-1

Withdrawal symptoms caused by the end of the World Cup are fading now – they were particularly acute this time because it was such a fantastic tournament, possibly the best ever – but this blog will consider the television coverage, and indeed the television involvement, rather than the football itself.

 

Most world cups bring some kind of advances in coverage, both in terms of the domestic presentation and the coverage of the matches by the host broadcaster. The first time I watched it was the annus mirabilis 1966, when the big advance was the introduction of the instant replay (it is now almost impossible to imagine football on TV without it). 1970 brought both colour and (on ITV) the first panel of pundits, though then they were back home in the studio rather than in an exotic location like Copacabana Beach or Red Square. Many of the subsequent changes to the organisation of the games have beenUnknown made with television coverage in mind – the red and yellow cards for instance, which clarified refereeing decisions, or the simultaneous playing of final group games, introduced to avoid teams playing out boring draws which would see both go through, but which now provide some nail-biting coverage, particularly at this most recent tournament (the final group games involving Argentina, Germany and Japan were all riveting for different reasons).

 

The big innovation of this tournament, of course, was the much-trumpeted video assistant referee (VAR) system. Truly, this was the moment when television coverage of the event could have become part of the event itself, if that was ever going to happen. There are plenty of reasons why that should NOT happen of course – TV has always needed to be separate from the action of any sporting event to cover it objectively – but the moment of review is where they should come together. Basically, we the viewers need to know that the referee is seeing the same replays as the television coverage is giving us – or to know precisely which pictures the referee is using to make his decision. That was very far from clear in many cases and, of course, we also have the commentators giving their own judgements, so that when the decision goes the other way (as it often did) confusion and outrage can result. At least we should be able to hear the conversation between the VAR referees and the on-field referee, or to hear the VAR officials’ conversation, as sometimes happens when an umpiring decision is reviewed in cricket.

Unknown-1

 

I think it’s clear that VAR resulted in far too many penalties, many of them crucial (especially the one in the final, which was very dodgy) and the reason is that the referee’s discretion has been removed. So many times, you hear commentators dismiss penalty appeals with the words “I’ve seen them given”, indicating that technically they may be penalties, but one wasn’t deserved in this case. Well, now they ARE being given and it is spoiling games. The other main use of VAR – for offsides being looked at retrospectively – is working better, though the commentators seemed to forget about it and were constantly criticising the linos for being too slow to raise their flags. The other thing they constantly mentioned was that the main point of it is to correct obvious mistakes, like Frank Lampard’s “goal” against Germany – but the goal-line technology already does that and works well because it is a matter of fact rather than interpretation. Penalties should always be down to interpretation, but VAR puts too much pressure on referees to reconsider reasonable initial thoughts in the light of “facts”. The whole question of the use of video replay for decision making in football is very much a work in progress and is a long way from getting it right.

 

But, for me, the worst aspect of the system is the loss of the excitement of the moment – the joy of a goal being scored which can be restrained by the possibility it may have to go to review. This has already happened in cricket. One of my all-time favourite cricket moments on TV was the end of the 2005 Ashes test at Edgbaston – a nail-biter, which England won by just 2 runs, the narrowest margin in Ashes history. When the final wicket fell – confirmed by the umpire’s finger – my explosion of joy was unconfined. The Unknown-3coverage on Channel 4 rose to the moment – unforgettable shots of Michael Vaughan and the England players celebrating, intercut with Andrew Flintoff’s sporting gesture to console Brett Lee, who had batted so well. None of that would be possible now – the umpire’s decision would be reviewed (and that particular decision was a debatable one – the pressure on the review team would have been enormous). Something has definitely been lost and the drama of the review does not compensate for it.

 

One strange aspect of this World Cup for me was that the end of the group stage and the first knockout round coincided with our family holiday in Montenegro, so I watched that section of it on RTCG with a commentary I could not fully understand (though you would have thought I might have learned the language after 21 years married to a native speaker – shame on me for that). This brought home to me that the commentary is not really there primarily to give factual information, or even to interpret the game for you, though that is important. Its main function is to replicate the sort of chat that would take place around you if you were actually at the game.  Mind you, I found I missed the studio analysis even more and found myself wondering what the panel might be saying back home after the penalties win over Colombia. Having shouted “Eng-er-lund!” from our balcony at the Columbia-supporting locals in the beachside bar below, I was left feeling a bit lost.

images-2

As for the British TV coverage, as usual I found the BBC’s the best and they put together a number of particularly excellent nostalgic compilations of archival material this year. Of course, the “curse of ITV”, having been seemingly banished in the first knockout round, returned with a vengeance for the semi-final. But England’s defeat did not bring the usual sense of anti-climax and the final was a worthy ending, though the chaos of the presentation of the trophy, including the TV direction, was not.

 

Anyway, just a week to go now before domestic footie returns for the new season (two if you support a Premier League club). Match of the Day will be back, Gary will be promising us an unmissable show every week and everything will be as it should be -with no VAR, at least until they have worked out how it should be used.

Unknown-2

 

Half-time Analysis

166725162-484364

 

Apologies to my small band of regular readers that there has been some considerable time since my last blog, but the World Cup and a family holiday have intervened since I last wrote. Now that the football is coming to an end, I will blog about it as a television experience next time, but first I thought I would take stock of where I am with my shortlist for the best of 2018, as we have just passed the halfway mark in the year.

 

So far, I have identified six titles as contenders for my end-of-year top ten: Inside Number 9, Kiri, Save Me, Mum, Damned and Homeland. That was as it stood when I blogged in May and I can find four other titles to make a half-year top ten, but only two of the extra four, one documentary and one drama, are going to make it onto the running shortlist.

 

I don’t have any documentaries on my list so far and two are worth noting. Vanessa Unknown-2Engle’s The Funeral Murders (BBC2) aired back in March and was a harrowing description of two awful days in the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, told frankly, compassionately and impartially and with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight. Above all, it highlighted why the Irish border issue is not just one of the difficulties of the Brexit process but by far the most important issue. And last Friday, there was a splendid doc on the life and career of Olympic ice skater John Curry, The Ice King (BBC4), full of archival material and rare recordings of his work, though the fact that all the interviews seemed to be archival as well made it look a bit limited. The Funeral Murders is the one to make the shortlist.

 

I noted in an earlier blog that I was enjoying The Looming Tower on Amazon, and indeed it kept me fully engaged to the end – well-made and well-acted; an interesting Unknown-1story well told – but ultimately maybe just a bit too conventional to be regarded as something special. On the other hand, Russell T.Davies’ A Very English Scandal (BBC1), a three-part dramatization of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal of the seventies, was very special indeed. Davies’ triumph was to make a light, comedic piece out of an episode which, while full of laughable incompetence and colourful characters, also contained some pretty dark elements, and he did it without trivialising those aspects in any way. One line summed up that approach for me – a Liberal Party bigwig regretting that the Thorpe scandal had hit the party just when it was beginning to gain some momentum through the likes of Cyril Smith and Clement Freud. Wicked stuff! And Hugh Grant, while playing the comedy as we knew he could, was a revelation in portraying the deeper complexities of Thorpe. The fact that the case hit the headlines again at the time of transmission, through the news Unknownthat the incompetent assassin Andrew Newton is still alive, when the police thought he was dead, only added to the sense of event television, as did the screening of Tom Bower’s edition of Panorama, scheduled for the night in 1979 when the expected guilty verdict should have been delivered, but shelved when it wasn’t. The inclusion of Peter Cook’s contemporary satire of the judge’s biased summing up during the end credits was a master stroke, too. A Very English Scandal is very much one for the shortlist.

 

In more general terms, my growing feeling that long-form television drama has now passed the high point of its most recent “golden age” has been supplied with more evidence. I have blogged last year about giving up on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Deuce after 5 episodes of each because they didn’t seem to be going anywhere and even Radio Times, which has championed Handmaid, has now commented that the second season of that much-honoured series was too unremittingly bleak. Most recently, I did watch all of Patrick Melrose (Sky Atlantic), which was mercifully brief at five well-produced and brilliantly acted episodes, but without any discernible point to it. I’m sure it was the best ever depiction of heroin addiction, but, once it was established that images-1Melrose’s self-destructive character was the fault of his abusive father and negligent mother, there was nothing else to it. It rather reminded me of a previous lavish five-parter, also featuring a fine performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and also based on a series of highly-regarded novels, Parade’s End (BBC, 2012), which ultimately did not add up to the sum of its parts.

 

And now I am faced with the Australian re-make of Picnic at Hanging Rock (BBC2, Wednesdays), which struggled to grab or hold my attention through its first episode. I found Peter Weir’s film version a bit tenuous, albeit highly atmospheric, so I can’t see myself making it through much more of the new series. We are promised a lot in the way of character backstories, but you have to be engaged by the front story for that to be in any way worthwhile.

 

In the meantime, the half-hour comedy-drama continues to provide the most innovative work, as, for me, it largely has done for the past decade. Bigger is not necessarily better.

 

Oh, the Humanity!

images

 

Two media news items caught my eye in recent days. In the first, the BBC revealed that it is using artificial intelligence, programmed with the profile of the BBC4 audience, to trawl its archive catalogue and create a schedule for an evening’s programming on that channel: https://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/tech/bbc-randd-uses-ai-to-uncover-hidden-gems-for-bbc4/5129603.article  Meanwhile, in Belgium, AI is being used in a script editing capacity to analyse and criticise potential work being considered for production: https://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/tech/ai-is-rewriting-the-tv-script/5129743.article

 

The reason these stories resonated at this particular moment is that I am currently following two drama series in the well-established and recently expanding sci-fi sub-genre speculating on the implications of creating artificial human beings: HBO’s Westworld season 2 on Sky Atlantic and Humans season 3 on Channel 4. Thinking about how feasible some of what we are being presented with in these series may be, I mused on the possibility of creating an AI television critic, who may be better placed to judge the likelihood of the plot and character developments – it looks like that may not have been such a frivolous thought after all.

 

There are plenty of robots with humanoid form or characteristics in the history of Unknown-1science fiction, but it was in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 50 years ago, that the implications of attempting to replicate human consciousness in machine form received its most brilliantly considered treatment. Put simply, the conundrum Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke explored was that the greater the success in replicating human behaviour, the greater the likelihood that human failings – unreliability, vengefulness, the tendency towards violence – will emerge, and this has become a standard trope of the AI genre. The genre also offered thoughtful film makers the possibility of exploring what the essence of humanity is – it is often remarked that the computer HAL is the “most human” character in 2001 and the astronauts were presented as being efficient and emotionless to emphasise this. Having re-created human consciousness, the only way forward was the next stage in human evolution, presented at the end of the film.

 

Science fiction has always been way ahead of science fact and highly speculative, but the best sci-fi has often had a grounding in technological possibility. So, as robotic and AI technologies progressed, the humanoid robots came to be played by actors, rather than presented as something highly mechanical. The original film of Westworld gave us a clearly mechanical Yul Brynner, but then a new trope appeared – as the quality of sci-fi robotics improved it became difficult to know for sure who was human and who artificial, allowing dramatic “reveals” which are now becoming a cliché. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) shocked us when Ian Holm turned out to be an android, and the rest of the franchise continued the trope. The same director then took it much further in Blade Runner (1982), which was basically about AI consciousness and its comparison to humanity, though very much from the “replicant” point of view. Rutger Hauer’s BattyUnknown-2 gets the best speech of the film (one of the best in all cinema) and we are left unsure whether Harrison Ford’s Deckard may be a replicant himself. For the actors involved, it meant a choice between playing their characters as they would a normal human being or using subtle indicators of their mechanical nature. A whole new acting skill developed, seen at its best in Stephen Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

On TV, Star Trek: The Next Generation (CBS, 1987-94) allowed the development of human characteristics in an android character, Lt. Cdr. Data, over the course of its run, which in turn allowed the writers to explore themes of humanity and emotional responses through him and the actor, Brent Spiner, to develop an acting style which moved from the mechanical towards the human.

images-2

Both Westworld and Humans aspire to examine the essence of humanity through the creation of artificial individuals, though they go about it in very different ways. Both employ the established tropes of the genre, including the “reveal” of the artificial natures of characters we had assumed were human (notably Bernard in Westworld and D.I. Karen Voss in Humans). Both also contain a godlike creator figure (by coincidence, the surviving one of a duo of innovators), in each case played by a veteran actor (William Hurt in Humans, pretty much reprising his role from Spielberg’s AI; Anthony Hopkins in Westworld).

 

Westworld also explores questions of free will in a scenario where the “hosts” characters and back stories have been created by a writer. Indeed, the most interesting parts, especially in the current season, are those where the development of the narrative is questioned by those within it who have responsibility for it. However, such philosophical moments are few and soon give way to yet another of the shoot-outs or violent set-pieces of which the series is so fond (well, it has a lot of time to fill). Moreover, especially in the first season, these soon become tiresome because the hosts are simply re-built and death and destruction cease to have any dramatic impact. This is less the case in season 2, but the shootouts are still tiresome because of their regularity, even images-1though they are more dramatically significant, and I preferred the fractured narrative of season 1. One nice touch in season 2 was when a group of the characters arrived in the neighbouring Shogun World and the writer remarked on how some of the “western” storylines had been replicated there, reminding us of the classic westerns which had been adapted from Kurosawa’s samurai epics.

 

Overall, Westworld cannot work as a western, even in part, because it simply isn’t one – it is sci-fi. But that doesn’t seem to stop the programme makers trying to have their cake and eat it too. It looks fantastic and is superbly put together but is ultimately far from satisfying. Humans, on the other hand, knows what it is and where it is going and is thus, for me, the better series. In its first season, by concentrating on the human reaction to interacting with domestic “synths” and on those synths secretly programmed with consciousness, it probed the theme of what it is to be human, in its second, with the move towards consciousness for all synths, the intervention of technology companies and disquiet amongst the human population, it became more issue-based and that has continued into the third season, in which docile, more mechanical orange-eyed synths have replaced the now fully-conscious green-eyed ones, who are perceived as a threat and kept in isolated camps and whose “human rights” are now the focus.

Unknown

Whereas the actors playing the hosts in Westworld seem to be giving naturalistic performances, on the assumption that the replication of human emotions has been perfected, in Humans the synths are recognisable as such (unless they are being deceptive) because of their green eyes and blue blood (no bloody shootouts here!) as well as their perfect make-up (do synths put their own make-up on, or are they built with it already there? – that’s one for our AI critic, I think). The performances of the actors playing the synths, exemplified by Gemma Chan as Mia, are very well judged to be both mechanical and nuanced.

 

But would I have any confidence in one of the synths as a BBC4 scheduler? The device in question is intended to understand the essence of the channel, but, as far as I am concerned, unpredictability is a key element in a successful schedule, so I hope that has been programmed in, as well as a good sense of humour.

The Awards that Reward

Unknown

This evening in New York the 30 winners of the 2017 Peabody Awards, together with two institutions and one individual, will receive their small but highly prestigious trophies at a ceremony on Wall Street. There are no categories, no envelopes and no nominees. We already know who the winners are. The list is here: http://www.peabodyawards.com/stories/story/2017-peabody-award-winners-77th-annual-peabody-30

 

I was fortunate and privileged to serve on the Peabody Board of Jurors from 2011 to 2016 and know well how many hours, days, weeks and months of viewing, discussing and deliberating goes into reducing over 1,200 submissions to the final thirty. It is an exhausting and exhilarating process which always produces a list of titles worth exploring. If, like me, you endured another year of frustrating and mystifying decisions at this year’s Baftas last Sunday, I can recommend you check out the Peabody list. The vast majority of the submissions are American, and this year’s list of winners is even more dominated by US product than in most previous years, but the process of deliberation is so trustworthy that what wins is not really a matter for contention. Unlike the Baftas, where you know what has been chosen over what else in each category and can get upset about it, the Peabody list is simply a collection of great stuff and there is imageslittle point in criticising inclusions or fretting over exclusions – 16 highly-qualified and carefully chosen judges have already done that for us and have agreed unanimously on the outcome.

 

That said, not everything on the list will be to everybody’s taste. When I was on the Board, I was able and obliged to watch everything which received serious consideration. For the last two years, since I left the Board, I have used the list as a totally reliable guide to select what to watch in a crowded market – last year I was particularly knocked out by Louis CK’s Horace and Pete. Not everything on the list is going to be available outside the USA – the fact that material on the PBS website won’t play outside the States is as frustrating as the unavailability of stuff on the BBC i-Player must be to people outside Britain (and it’s done for the same reason). But many of the entertainment and documentary titles can be found on various platforms such as Netflix and Amazon (even some of the PBS stuff) and I have enjoyed watching a number of the things I had not already seen in the past few weeks since the list was announced.

 

First to be published were the documentary winners and I watched Chasing Coral and Newtown on Netflix, which carries the latter despite it being a PBS title from the outstanding Independent Lens series. Newtown is a very moving study of the effects of the Sandy Hook school massacre on the Connecticut community. The documentary I would most like to see, though, is Deej, which I cannot find available anywhere in Britain as yet – hopefully it will come our way some time soon.

Unknown-1

From the entertainment list, published a week later, I checked out Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King on Netflix – a stand-up comedy special which is not only very funny, but truly thought-provoking and well-designed for television presentation. Minhaj is hosting tonight’s ceremony, so it will be fun to see how that works. I also looked at The Marvellous Mrs Maisel on Amazon, but I’m afraid I didn’t get further than the first episode – as I said, not everything appeals to everybody.

 

But there are two things from this year’s list of Peabody winners which have more than re-confirmed my faith in it as the best guide to quality viewing and which I may not otherwise have discovered – one from the documentary list, the other from entertainment, and both available on Netflix. Time: the Kalief Browder Story (Weinstein Television – and, yes, Harvey’s name is even on the credits!) is a documentary series about injustice in the tradition of Making a Murderer. It tells the horrific tale of a Unknown-2young black man whose refusal to plea bargain over an alleged minor felony kept him in the “justice system” for three years, involving incarceration in New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison and several lengthy spells in solitary confinement, before his eventual release and exoneration preceded a tragic ending. With extensive forensic interviews and disturbing CCTV footage, the series grips and shocks over six episodes, but it is the nature of the injustices and abuses it uncovers rather than the style of storytelling which makes the greatest impact – and that is just as well, because the other series I am going to describe is such a perfect parody of the genre that it’s going to make it difficult to watch such things in future without thinking about it.

 

I’m certainly glad I watched The Kalief Browder Story before I came across American Vandal (3 Arts/Funny or Die). Taking its cue from series like The Jinx, Making a Murderer and Serial, it is a hilarious genre parody in which two high-school media nerds investigate who was responsible for spray-painting 27 penises on cars in the school staff car park, in an attempt to prove the innocence of the suspended prime suspect. The humour is pitch-perfect, but the joke could not have been stretched across eight episodes if it had not been much more besides. The characters are so well drawn that it works as comedy-drama as well – imagine My So-Called Life re-made in the style of The Office. It also has plenty to say about the nature of documentary truth and the effect of such programming on people’s lives in the age of social media.

Unknown-3

Unfortunately, these being programmes from 2017, neither can go on my running list of the best of 2018, even though I’ve only just caught up with them.  But the latest season of a Peabody winner from 2011 certainly can. I first encountered Homeland (Showtime) as part of my Peabody viewing and it was on the winners’ list in its first season. Despite the fact that it then suffered something of a slump, I have followed it ever since and am delighted that it has been reviving over the past three years: so much so that I think the latest season, just finished on Channel 4, is the best since the first – maybe it’s even better. No other dramatic series manages to keep its finger on the pulse of contemporary events as strikingly as Homeland has done over the past two seasons, which is even more amazing when you consider the lead-in times involved. The current threats to American democracy – Russia, media manipulation, Presidential hubris – are all in there and Carrie’s bi-polar disorder is a perfect metaphor for the divisive nature of current American politics and society.

images-1

Homeland is thus the first American title on my 2018 shortlist, though the best stuff from the States has usually arrived here in the Summer in recent years (see my first blog!), so I’m certain it won’t be the last. And I still have a good deal of catching up to do on Netflix and Amazon (I’m currently enjoying The Looming Tower on the latter). Maybe I’ll have managed to see more of the 2018 Peabody winners, at least in the entertainment section, before the list is published next year. I’ll certainly be awaiting it as eagerly as ever.

Extra-special Features

images-1

Have you ever bought a DVD/blu-ray for one of the special features (or “extras”) rather than for the film or TV title itself? I’m not talking about upgrading something you already own by buying one of those special edition or anniversary releases, designed to make you buy the thing you already have by packing it with extra stuff that no self-respecting completist collector can be without, but actually buying a title you do not already have because you want one of the “extras” rather than (or more than) the title itself.

 

Well, I’ve just done so for the third time. The first of these was the four (DVD) or three (blu-ray) disc set of Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959) a film which I had seen and enjoyed in the cinema as a child, but one which I had little intention of purchasing until this edition appeared, including as it does the original 1925 silent Fred Niblo version, as presented on Thames Silents with tinted and toned scenes and a wonderful, Wagner-inspired score by Carl Davis. This was a film I had been wanting to get for some time,Unknown especially this version of it, so the fact that it was available on a set which was (and still is) on sale for under a tenner was an opportunity not to be missed. I would gladly have paid double for the silent version alone.

 

As a trained librarian, my collection is meticulously and logically arranged on my shelves, and this set of Ben Hur sits where it belongs – in the silent film section. A few inches away is the second DVD I bought for the extras. Though I am glad to have the William Wyler version of Ben Hur, there is no way I would images-2have bought the silent German bergfilm The Holy Mountain had the set not come with a bonus disc containing the excellent three-hour documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Muller, 1993). It is there because Riefenstahl stars in The Holy Mountain, but otherwise has nothing to do with that film beyond the brief section on her acting career.

 

The third has just been released and I have been enjoying it over the last couple of days. In this case the film is actually a very good one – Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955), which is one of only two films to win both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Best Picture Oscar. It was one of several notable films of the mid-fifties to have been developed from scripts written originally for live US television drama: Twelve Angry Men and Requiem for a Heavyweight were notable others. And it was the presence of the original 1953 telecastimages of Marty amongst this Eureka release’s special features which was the top selling point for me. It was transmitted as part of NBC’s Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, a strand which was the recipient of a 1953 Peabody Award for the general excellence of its productions, so it wasn’t only the film version which won prestigious awards. It had previously been available only on a US-standard Criterion set called The Golden Age of Television and some interviews from that set are included as well.

 

Marty is arguably the earliest American television drama masterpiece and had a massive impact. Paddy Chayefsky wrote it for Philco Television Playhouse at very short notice (a matter of days) and it was directed by Delbert Mann. For the movie version, two years later, Chayefsky expanded his script by including a few extra scenes, but the essence remained the same. Mann directed again and included a number of location shoots to give the piece a more expansive feel, but a feeling of claustrophobia and inescapable routine was an essential part of the original and this actually works against the film version. Most important are the cast changes to the two leads: Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand (both primarily stage actors at the time) are utterly convincing as the two desperate singletons, seeing in each other a last chance to escape a life “on the shelf”. Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair are very good, but they are movie stars after all, which carries an aura of glamour, and they are lit as such.  Steiger’s trademark mumbling style also works in his favour in this role, whereas Borgnine is more affable and thus less convincing as a reject. Several of the other members of the cast of the TV version reprised their roles in the film.

images-3

Above all, the television version has the impact that comes with the knowledge that it is being performed “live” in a few small sets and on limited resources – they only get the one take and the sense of immediacy is transmitted straight to the audience. Television pioneers made up the rules and grammar of the medium as they went along – certainly there was experience from theatre, radio and film to draw upon, but the TV version of Marty conveys the unmistakable excitement of something very new, so that even the technical limitations become part of the enjoyment of the piece. And those limitations extend also to the method of reproduction – early telerecording (or, as the Americans call it, kinescope), which was, basically, filming the picture from a television screen. This recording contains a number of technical glitches and, when the camera pans across the set, the convex nature of the monitor screen makes the set perspective shift in a very unsettling way. Not that this matters in any way – in fact it actually adds to the impression that you are seeing something genuinely pioneering.

Unknown-1

It is interesting to note that, while the American film industry was responding to the threat of television with widescreen, colour and spectacle, it was also adapting low-key social dramas like Marty for the cinema screen with great success and, indeed, winning major awards with them. The Marty movie cleaned up at the Oscars, winning not only best picture, but best actor, director and adapted screenplay as well. In Britain, by contrast, TV drama at this time was very much dominated by theatrical models and adaptations of literary classics. The main cinematic adaptations of 1950s British TV dramas were those of the Quatermass science fiction series. By the time Sydney Newman converted Armchair Theatre to a vehicle for socially realistic dramas, the cinema new wave was beginning and taking its cues from theatre and contemporary novels.

 

Anyway, having viewed both versions of Marty, I now have to decide whether to put my blu-ray on the shelves containing my film or my TV collections.

Two Black Stars Shine on Sky

Unknown

images-3

 

 

 

 

 

“When will Sky finally make an outstanding original drama?”

“Why has British TV found it so difficult to make really effective use of black stars like Idris Elba and how can it do so?”

These are two questions I have asked at various times over the past decade. Both have been answered in the last weeks. What is surprising is that the answer to both was pretty much the same – personal projects created by leading black British actors.

Sky’s attempts at original drama have usually involved buying up established talent and throwing it together in the expectation of automatic success, usually in formats that have proven recently successful. TV, like the movies, is a copycat medium – if something is a success, then try to replicate it. This is the exact opposite of “originality”, but genuine originality has to come from somewhere and, in British TV, that has usually meant the BBC or Channel 4. Even ITV occasionally comes up with something new which it then attempts to replicate ad nauseam, a la Broadchurch, but Sky’s efforts to date have been utterly derivative, from Mad Dogs (2011-13), which threw four then “hot” actors together in a gangster plot which basically ripped off Sexy Beast, to Fortitude (2015-), with its imagesattempt to merge Scandi-noir with the vogue for crime mysteries in enclosed communities.

Last year, Sky presented its most promising effort yet – Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic), which was well worth watching but lacked the vital ingredients to make it outstanding, as well as containing what I thought was an unsuitable and under-developed role for…..Idris Elba. But the solution was at hand, and it was to commission an original drama from one of the many black British stars who had found fame and success in the USA. Actually, Lennie James was not somebody whom British TV had not found a role for in the past – he was excellent in the first season of Line of Duty (BBC2, 2012) and had a few writing credits to his name, such as The Bill. But nothing prepared us for the impact of Save Me, just concluded on Sky Atlantic.

images

The plot of Save Me has several points of comparison to Channel 4’s Kiri, aired in January – a mixed-race girl goes missing and her estranged black father becomes involved in the search. It even has a sympathetic black female detective in common with the earlier piece, but there the two diverge, with Save Me investigating the ghastly world of organised paedophilia and the effect of the girl’s disappearance on her parents and their circles of friends and associates, and most particularly on her father, Nelly. Lennie plays Nelly, and the inversion of his name seems to indicate that this is maybe an alternative version of himself. He certainly inhabits the character totally and in turn creates an utterly memorable social milieu for the character to inhabit – the run-down estate, the pub, the gang of locals.

What strikes you the most is the strength of the writing and the scenes James has created, many of them searingly uncomfortable yet totally gripping. It reminded me of This Is England at its best and I can’t offer much higher praise than that, but it is its own thing, not a copy of anything else. That comparison is perhaps prompted by the casting of Stephen Graham, an actor whose mere presence makes an average script good, a good images-1one great and a great one outstanding – and this is a great script. A great cast, too, also including fine work from Suranne Jones and Kerry Godliman, alongside Graham and the others, and a brief yet indelible cameo from Adrian Edmondson.

I did feel slightly uneasy about the ending (and please skip to the next para now if you haven’t seen it), partly because the way Nelly rescued the girl who was being auctioned seemed a little too easy (though the fact that it wasn’t his daughter after all made for a satisfactory conclusion, which emphasised his own obsession and paranoia over her disappearance) but mainly because of the way it leaves things open for a second season. I certainly think there is room for more stories about Nelly and the others, but a continuation of this particular plotline would be very hard to sustain, so I hope that doesn’t happen – mostly because it just wouldn’t be “original” any more.

Sky has a much better record in original comedy than drama, both in terms of providing a platform for innovative pieces like Julia Davis’ Hunderby (2012-15), Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy (2012-15) or the wonderfully surreal This is Jinsy (2011-14), and of commissioning new work involving established comic creations like Alan Partridge. So, they deserve great credit for realising that Idris Elba had the potential for comedy – not just performing it, but also creating it. Maybe it was those commercials he does for them which gave them the idea.

images-2

Elba’s creation, In the Long Run (Sky One), is based on his childhood in 1980s London and he plays Walter, the character representing his own father, in the series, much as Lenny Henry did in his own recreation of his seventies teenage years, Danny and the Human Zoo (BBC1, 2015). Another point of reference is Danny Baker’s series based on his memoirs of a seventies adolescence, Cradle to Grave (BBC2, 2015) – In the Long Run uses contemporary pop songs in much the same way. Elba shows a considerable gift for comedy, considering that his reputation is based on dramatic tough-guy roles, which I guess is why his previous British TV vehicle, Luther (BBC), was just that – a creation designed to showcase him, rather than use his talents in something more substantial.

The council estate where the characters live is presented and populated in much the same loving detail as the one in Save Me (I particularly like the balcony singer, who gives both atmosphere and commentary). Unlike Save Me, though, most of the main cast is black (playing immigrants from Sierra Leone), with the exception of Bill Bailey as Unknown-1Walter’s friend Bagpipes and Kellie Shirley as his wife Kirsty. This is an excellent role for Bailey – a wonderful stand-up but hitherto underused as a comic actor. Bailey and Elba are particularly good in their scenes together. The racial politics of the time are a constant presence and reference point, without becoming overwhelming.

As I hinted in my last blog, Save Me goes straight on to my running shortlist for the best of 2018 (and is certainly the best drama on that list so far), but In the Long Run still has to be seen as something which is highly promising and has potential for development – it started a little unevenly, but episode 4 (the engagement party) was a classic and, by the time it reached the sixth and final episode the characters and their relationships were fully established and it had become highly engaging and enjoyable. Definitely one to keep an eye on in the long run.