The Awards that Reward

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Mum & Damned

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I usually put a basic descriptive working title on my blogs as I write them on Word and then try to replace them with something snappier for publication. In this case, I’m just going to keep the working title, because it somehow sounds right. So, this is about the two series named above.

 

In a blog back in December, I mentioned several series of 30-minute programmes which I said would be amongst my top 10 TV titles of this century and which, though they come from comedy, contain dramatic elements and realistic narratives which make them more like mini-dramas. My two favourites are Stefan Golaszewski’s Him & Her (BBC, 2010-13) and Getting On (BBC, 2009-12), co-created by Jo Brand. The most recent creations by both Golaszewski and Brand have just completed their respective second seasons and both go straight on to my running shortlist for the best of 2018.

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Mum (BBC2) doesn’t even run to 30 minutes now. Apart from the final episode, Golaszewski clearly thought that a 25-minute slot was enough to convey what he needed each time, and this season contained a number of extended contemplative scenes with minimal dialogue – the moment when Karl Johnson’s Reg was simply sitting and thinking about the loss of his son was a deft and necessary reminder of the background to the piece, even though the closing song is always there to reinforce the point that the key character is the one we never met. This has not only been a series where nothing has happened – nothing happening has been the point. All the characters have been in their own limbo for a second full year, as individuals as well as couples – Cathy and Michael still unable fully to understand or accept each one’s need for the other; Jason and Kelly constantly on the brink of moving to their own flat, though Jason clearly finds it Unknownunbearably difficult to leave his mum, both because of the loss of his father and his own domestic needs – meals and washing – which Kelly seems very unlikely to provide for him; Derek and Pauline waiting for the latter’s divorce to be finalised and hiding their own desperate insecurities behind their rather pathetic public personas; and Maureen and Reg, usually in the background, Maureen asleep and Reg seemingly waiting for the moment he will lose his wife as well, all the time tenderly checking that she is still alive, in between swearing and complaining about everything else.

 

I must admit, that, after three or four episodes, I was beginning to wonder if Golaszewski had made a mistake in not advancing any kind of plot dynamic. Nothing happened in the first series of Him & Her either, but the second series gave a definite sense of dramatic development, albeit by stealth. Maybe the difference is that Pauline, obnoxious as she is, lacks the malevolent narrative-driving presence of Laura in Him & Her. I was also concerned that maybe, by assuming the directorial responsibility as well (Richard Laxton directed all four series of Him and Her and the first of Mum), Golaszewski had made it just that little bit too introspective. But I shouldn’t have worried. The final two episodes put the previous four into a different light and completed a magnificent whole, which I am already looking forward to revisiting. In the final ten minutes a combination of Michael’s impending move to Spain and Jason’s clumsy attempt to preserve his own memory of his father by warning Michael against “stealing his wife” prompts Cathy into a desperate declaration of love which stuns both Michael and us. In the penultimate episode we have already seen her give Michael an impromptu hug which doesn’t seem to have advanced matters, so there is no guarantee this will, either. When they tentatively link hands while watching fireworks on bonfire night in the final image of the series we are reminded that the first series ended in much the same way on New Year’s Eve the previous year.

 

So, it is perfectly possible, when the third season arrives, that nothing will have changed, but I trust Golaszewski to have something very special in store for us and, whatever does imagesor doesn’t happen, we are going to miss it when it’s gone. It really seems superfluous to note that the acting performances are out-of-this-world wonderful, but, equally, it would be an oversight to write a blog about Mum without mentioning just how fantastic Lesley Manville and Peter Mullan are, as are all the cast (and a special mention for Karl Johnson as Reg this time round). So much goes unspoken, but you are in no doubt what the characters are thinking and feeling. One other point about the third series – it will be interesting to see how the episodes are titled. So far, each episode has had the name of a month as its title (each season covering a year in the characters’ lives), but all 12 have been used up now.

 

Damned (Channel 4), by contrast, is jam-packed with incident. There is more narrative in the overheard phone conversations than in an entire season of Mum. It also represents the completion of the transformation of Jo Brand from stand-up, presenter and panel show regular to the finest female writer and comic actor we have – and, whereas that was once the late lamented Caroline Aherne’s title for the taking, there is now a great deal of competition from the likes of Sharon Horgan, Julia Davis, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel and Diane Morgan. But Brand has now been (jointly) responsible for two of the finest series of the last two decades. I regard Getting On as one of the greatest TV achievements of the 21stcentury: it was written and performed by Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine (and the first two series were directed by Peter Capaldi, no less) and I always assumed that each was mainly responsible for their own character (much of it was improvised, anyway), with Brand providing the background knowledge from her time as a psychiatric nurse, which gave it such a ring of authenticity.

 

I believe subsequent career trajectories have borne out my assumption that Brand was the leading creative force behind Getting On (which, incidentally, translated very well to the US version, made by HBO under the auspices of its creators). Scanlan and Pepperdine collaborated on the less-than-inspired Puppy Love (BBC4, 2014), before returning to their acting careers (Scanlan to great acclaim in Paul Abbot’s No Offence for Channel 4), while Brand moved her character of Nurse Kim Wilde on to a brief but highly memorable three-part series, Going Forward (BBC4, 2016). At the same time, she created Damned in collaboration with Morwenna Banks, firstly as a pilot for Sky’s Playhouse Presents, in 2014, which was then developed into a series for Channel 4, with the addition of Will Smith to the writing team, debuting in 2016.

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Much as Getting On drew on Brand’s own experience of nursing, so Damned reflects her mother’s profession as a social worker in a children’s department. She seems to be playing a version of herself in all these series, but that is what makes it so effective and authentic. What is more, Damned is populated by brilliantly drawn characters, both the workplace regulars and the clients. Alan Davies, Kevin Eldon, Georgie Glen and Isy Suttie provide the sort of support you would expect from such reliable performers, but it is two of the other staff members whose roles are most striking: Himesh Patel as uptight ex-cop Nitin and Lolly Adefope as political jargon-spouting trainee Mimi. To cast minority actors in roles which seem mainly there to attract the derisive scorn of the veteran staff is a brave move, but one which works well, especially as both come good at the end of the second series and show a depth of character which is part of the success of the show. Nobody is a stereotype on Damned, and the writers deserve great credit for that. They also deserve enormous credit for producing a narrative and dialogue which delivers many laughs while also being shocking and provocative (sometimes all at the same time).

 

Not joining Mum and Damned on the 2018 shortlist, however, is Hold the Sunset (BBC1). I managed to watch it all and was mildly diverted by it, as anybody would be images-2watching John Cleese, Alison Steadman and Jason Watkins effortlessly investing substandard dialogue with the sort of comic potential it doesn’t deserve. The rest of the high-quality cast, including the aforementioned Joanna Scanlan and sitcom veteran Peter Egan, were largely wasted, though. And, unlike the other two shows, it was really trying to be funny.

 

As for recent new British dramas of a more traditional length, I also watched all of David Hare’s Collateral (BBC2) without being overly impressed, while I didn’t get beyond the first episode of Troy: Fall of a City (BBC1). Meanwhile, on Channel 4, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams concluded its run with a couple of interesting stories but was inconsistent overall and no replacement for Black Mirror. However, I am currently gripped by one particularly impactful new drama, which I reckon is another certainty for the 2018 shortlist, but that will be for my next blog.

The Difference an S Makes

 

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It can be invidious to attempt to re-make a TV classic, to produce a new version of one for a modern audience or even simply to invite comparison with one. In the case of Civilisations (BBC2 and BBC i-player) it seems that what is being attempted is the invocation of the status of the iconic series Civilisation (BBC2, 1969) and the “correction” of that series’ perceived cultural elitism. The booklet to accompany the presentation, in 2000, of the BFI TV100 (in which Civilisation was voted 8th in the list of greatest factual programmes on British TV) comments that “it set the standard for subsequent presenter-led documentary series and stood as a benchmark for the educational value of public service television, though some of it may now be seen as culturally exclusive and elitist”.

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That judgement could seem either a little harsh or a little soft, depending on your standpoint, whereas it is really simply acknowledging the fact that this monumental series did have its detractors and is possibly also an explanation of the fact that it didn’t finish higher on the list (I should know – I wrote it!). My own view is that Civilisation has suffered critically from one mistake only – its choice of title. It was clearly intended to be a history of Western European art and architecture (beautifully shot and presented on 35mm film to demonstrate the potential of the new colour television service) and was imagessubtitled A Personal View by Kenneth Clark. Clark himself had become a well-known presenter of documentaries on art, especially painting, throughout the fifties and sixties, but this was the first time (of many more to come) that an expert presenter had fronted a prestige 13-part series and, though the aim was a comprehensive overview of his subject, that subject needed to be clearly defined (and clearly wasn’t).

 

Clark says at the very start of Civilisation that he can’t define the title term but knows when he is looking at it (and he is looking at Notre Dame in Paris as he says that). Even though the ambition of the series was greater than what had gone before, it was still restricted by the practical and financial limitations of the time. I referred in an earlier blog to the talk I helped organise at the BFI by Sir David Attenborough, in which he explained that the scope of Life on Earth was only possible in the mid-seventies because the expansion of air travel allowed a worldwide shooting schedule to be drawn up. Attenborough, of course, was the Controller of BBC2 who commissioned Civilisation and, in the later sixties, the idea of travelling across Western Europe to film a prestige series was ambitious enough. Even if the money had been there to go further afield, the way the world was divided politically would have militated against it.

 

The original informs the remake at several points, not least in the opening remarks of the first part and the opening titles, which clearly establish the new series as a direct response to the old. Simon Schama also tackles the meaning of “civilisation” – his takeimages-2 being that he may not be able to define it positively, but he can certainly recognise the opposite – and, where Clark begins his narrative with the Dark Ages and the survival of civilisation during an age of barbarian vandalism “by the skin of our teeth”, so Schama invokes the cultural destructiveness of ISIS to illustrate the fragility of civilisation (and at the same time tells the story of Khaled al-Asaad, the ultimate archivist, who preferred execution to revealing the whereabouts of Palmyra’s treasures). Then on to the opening titles – in which the title “Civilisation” first appears, with the final S formed as an addition from matter floating about the screen. The connection to the original series is unambiguously made.

 

But this is not enough – the “corrective” differences also need to be emphasised and the fact that most of Schama’s opening episode concerns itself with the ancient world, as Unknownwell as venturing well beyond Western Europe, establishes the difference in time as well as space. The second part brings even more points of comparison and difference – most obviously, there is a different presenter, Mary Beard, who will contribute two parts to the series, as will David Olusoga, while Schama returns for a further four. This has the desired effect of introducing more diverse voices and each part is clearly labelled as the personal view of the presenter.  Whether this fragmentation helps the coherence of the series is another matter, as is the related decision to divide the narrative thematically rather than chronologically. Beard’s first foray contains more direct correctives to the original than seen so far, including a clip of Clark delivering the sort of “elitist” judgements here being disclaimed. Beard has clearly been included amongst the presenters to provide a much-needed feminist perspective, but she rather overstepped the brief in the widely derided sequence in which she told a story of a man who ejaculated on an ancient statue of Aphrodite and claimed this was rape because the statue had not consented! To me, the problem here was not so much the plain silliness of the assertion, inserted in a spirit of political correctness to make a connection with a current issue, but the lost opportunity it represented to explore ideas about the fine line between art and pornography.  To be fair to Beard, she recovered from this low point to give us one of the better episodes – the one on religion and art (part 4: The Eye of Faith) – which she ended with her own take on the meaning of “civilisation” as an “act of faith”.

 

The biggest elephant in the Civilisation room however, is the establishment of Western cultural elitism as a result of imperialism. Simon Schama first touches upon the question in part 5, but it is really the province of David Olusoga, whose previous historical series have been critiques of imperialism and colonialism and who devotes a whole episode of Civilisations (part 8: The Cult of Progress) to the question. There is clearly an important point to be made here and Olusoga not only makes it well but does so without direct reference to the original series. However, it does seem that it is the unspoken assumptions of Clark’s approach which are being addressed and I do wonder what MV5BMzI5NmVmYTAtZDg5Mi00YjhiLThkNzctYjc5YTE5YzE0YWRjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDYxOTY1Njg@._V1_audience this is aimed at. Those old enough to remember the original will (hopefully) have gone through a long process, aided by countless TV arts and history series, of gaining a greater perspective on world cultural history. Those who don’t remember it, or don’t even know about it, will understand that attitudes have changed and may wonder why the point is being emphasised at all.

 

So, to return to the title, while CivilisationS intends to indicate a wider scope than Civilisation (i.e. it is about many civilisations) it also allows for incompleteness (i.e. it is about some civilisations, not all), which can actually result in a narrower, rather than wider focus. Most of the themes tackled in single episodes could be full series in their own right (and, indeed, several have been, presented by the likes of Andrew Graham-Dixon, Waldemar Januszczak and Simon Schama himself – while Mary Beard and David Olusoga have covered similar territory at greater length from the more general historical perspective). And not every individual part of Civilisations works either – there are some excellent ten or fifteen-minute sequences, but then, when you would like to see the development of the idea, it moves on to something different entirely. Nine 60-minute episodes is nowhere near enough to encompass the scale of its ambition, with the result that the whole is very much less than the sum of its parts.

 

Therefore, ultimately, I would judge Civilisations a failure in relation to its lofty ambition. Despite its faults, the original Civilisation represents a genuine and highly significant advance in the art of documentary television, while Civilisations is really a misconceived idea, lacking a real point. The original series will go back on my DVD shelves and I reckon its place in the canon remains secure, but it will not be joined by its successor, which also shouldn’t trouble those of us who like to make lists.

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TV Catch-up #1: Deadwood

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One of the best aspects of retirement for me is the opportunity it affords to catch up with or to revisit outstanding TV series, either from my DVD/Blu-ray collection or video streaming services. Watching something several years after its debut allows one to appreciate its significance as part of television history, to read critical commentary around it and to compare it to contemporary production. I’m no great binge-watcher, especially of great drama – I find that the impact of the best material demands time to sink in, so I rarely watch more than two episodes at any sitting. I also like to leave a period of time between seasons, as would happen if I was watching it on debut, rather than jump straight in to the next season when I come to the end of one. As a result, the process can take some time and, of course, I am catching up with other things, movies and TV, at the same time.

 

One of the series at the top of my list to see in full was Deadwood (HBO), David Milch’s ground-breaking western series which ran for three seasons between 2004 and 2006. There were several reasons for this: firstly I had heard from so many people whose opinions I value that it was one of the best, if not the best TV drama of all (including former Peabody Director Horace Newcomb, who rated it his number one) as well as reading similar judgement in books by David Bianculli and Sepinwall & Seitz; then there was the pedigree of work by David Milch, co-creator of NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993-2005) – one of my all-time favourites (I never missed an episode and intend to revisit it all some time); and there was the tantalising prospect that concluding episodes may yet be made, which, at the time of writing, remains just that (though the chance of it happening is far from certain and the recent sad death of Powers Boothe can’t have helped). I had picked up a set of the complete three seasons for under a tenner in an Amazon sale, so was set to go.

 

Good TV westerns are now a great rarity, though they dominated both the peak-time and Unknown-2children’s schedules (and my own viewing) when I first started watching TV in the late 1950s. ITV had just begun and imported a large number of American titles, with the BBC following suit to compete. My particular favourites were The Lone Ranger (ABC, 1949-57), Wagon Train (NBC, 1957-62), Maverick (ABC, 1957-62), Bonanza (NBC, 1959-73) and, above all, Rawhide (CBS, 1959-65). However, the genre all but disappeared from TV (and, indeed, the cinema) from the late sixties onwards. There were many reasons for this – socio-political, cultural and economic – though there were the occasional revivals in both cinema (mostly thanks to former TV cowboy Clint Eastwood) and TV (1989’s Lonesome Dove), but then nothing of real impact until….

 

Deadwood does not just make an impact as a western, but as a wonderful piece of drama which just happens to be a western. It is recognisably the work of one of the co-creators of NYPD Blue, with which it shares a number of characteristics: a strong sense of location; episodes which follow a number of strongly-drawn characters over the course of a day and advances multiple plot lines in brief and telling scenes; a reprehensible anti-hero who is the most memorable (and most memorably portrayed) character in the show, as well as the spirit of the piece. What sets Deadwood apart from other dramas is its use of language: not that it is authentic to the period, but that it creates the illusion that it may be. It is actually poetic, quasi Shakespearean in places, as well as being full of the highest “naughty words” quotient in TV drama history. Characters often speak aloud to themselves, in what amount to soliloquies, without it seeming unnatural. Master of this style is William Sanderson as the scheming town mayor and hotelier E.B.Farnum, whose awareness of his own failings is beautifully and movingly expressed.

 

Of course, the main focus is Ian McShane’s magnetic performance as saloon-owner and general “Mr Big” Al Swearengen – a name that seems too perfect, given his responsibilityUnknown-1 for so much of the f-ing and c-ing in the dialogue, but one which belonged to the real-life individual on whom the character is based. Indeed, most of the characters in Deadwood are based on the town’s original inhabitants and the narrative is closely tied to the historical reality and to examining the development of social, political and economic structures which emerged from the anarchy of the pioneering west; and within this narrative, Milch and his terrific cast create characters who have both a historic and contemporary resonance, which is why it works so well.

 

Much has been written about the abrupt ending of Deadwood, following the incredibly tense third and final season, and the possibility of a coda being made, but it was certainly, yet again, not part of a western revival. It seems that the reappearance of westerns are now one-offs rather than fixtures in the TV and movie landscape. In 2012 we got Hatfields and McCoys (History Channel), which also featured a notable attempt at historical reconstruction, including authentic-sounding dialogue, but we have had nothing to rank alongside Deadwood until….

 

Godless (Netflix, 2017), written and directed by Scott Frank, does have certain themes and plot points in common with Deadwood: from the growth of capitalist interest in the Unknown-3activities of the mineral pioneers, through the importance of the press in the development of the west and its mythology to the depiction of lesbian relationships. However, having watched it immediately after finishing Deadwood, its differences are more striking: it has much more in the way of open spaces, whereas Deadwood is almost completely confined to the town, which gives it a claustrophobic feel (rather like that of NYPD Blue); it also has more in the way of traditional western tropes (the “cowardly” sheriff redeemed at the end; the mysterious stranger who acts as a mentor to a young boy, before riding off into the sunset; a climactic shootout worthy of Sam Peckinpah) despite the “twist” that it features a large number of female protagonists; basically it looks like an extended movie rather than a TV series (shot in a 2.39:1 ratio; complete at just over 7 hours, or less than twice the running time of Heaven’s Gate). It is also mightily impressive and enjoyable and a significant addition to the western canon on both film and TV.

 

And with the highly-regarded Hostiles yet to come, anybody would think another western revival was underway. As on previous occasions, it probably isn’t, but I’m already looking forward to the next time we think it may be.

Two Lights in the January Darkness

 

 

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Having so recently joined in with the “best of year” list-making festivities, it seems a bit perverse to be speculating on what may make 2018’s list when we are only just over one month into the year. But, as awards season begins and prompts further looking back at the last year, the new material emerging at this time of year can get overlooked when it comes time to assess the current year’s offerings. So, if only to act as a useful reminder when the Christmas tree goes up again, here are a couple of things from January which will already be in contention for my best of 2018.

Yes, there are only two so far and the first of them is a returning favourite. Season 4 of Inside Number 9 (BBC2) has to be the best yet, and that’s saying something given the established quality of the series. I doubt that Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton will ever be able to top The Twelve Days of Christine from season 2, which was just about the most perfect 30 minutes of TV drama imaginable on all levels, but, this time round, they have given us a full six outstanding pieces of writing and storytelling. Though it resists genre classification, all the usual elements were there: mystery, comedy, horror, pathos, despair and the trademark plot twists – plus some terrific dialogue (most notably in the Shakespearean comedy set in a hotel corridor, Zanzibar, which kicked off the season) and some great set-pieces (the retro comedy routine in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room). The “ten minutes earlier” shifts in Once Removed allowed for multipleimages plot twists in the same story, while the plot shift in To Have and To Hold was amongst the most disturbing things the duo have given us (in a story which was already pretty bleak!). Maybe And the Winner Is… was comparatively lightweight following the outstanding impact of the first four, but it still contained plenty of laughs and showbiz barbs, and the series finished strongly with a new and very “Number 9” take on a familiar horror trope in Tempting Fate.

A fifth series will be coming and there seems little reason why the quality should not be sustained – the format is very flexible and the half-hour slot works so well, as does the opportunity it affords for telling guest roles. It really should be cleaning up at the awards shows, but, as its creators have observed (and alluded to in And the Winner Is…) the fact that it does not easily fit into a genre category works against it, as, I guess, does the 30-minute duration. As I noted in a previous blog, though, if something is the right length for what it is attempting that is all that matters, and succinctness can be the greater skill. This applies to the acting performances, too, and Inside Number 9 contains many outstanding ones. Maybe each edition should be treated as a separate entity – the movie-style posters created for them hint at the scale of their ambition.

Excellent acting was also on show in my other early contender for 2018 honours – Channel 4’s Kiri. Sarah Lancashire was obviously the prime focus, though her character Unknown-1of an embattled social worker did not dominate the series, which examined the effects of the murder of a black child, fostered with a white family, on a wide range of individuals and was essentially about attitudes to race, spoken and unspoken, in modern Britain. Lia Williams as the white foster mother, Lucian Msamati as the girl’s grandfather, Wunmi Mosaku as the investigating police officer and young Finn Bennett as the foster family’s natural son also shone, and the piece was strikingly directed by Euros Lyn, but it was basically the work of writer Jack Thorne which was the key element.

As with Thorne’s previous series for Channel 4, 2016’s National Treasure, Kiri was in four parts and examined its narrative from multiple perspectives. It also dealt with a contentious social and political issue in a way which humanised the problem and found no easy answers. But the greatest similarity with its predecessor came at its ending, which left a great deal unresolved. The trial verdict in National Treasure was not particularly conclusive and the characters’ lives were left in limbo, which was an appropriate and satisfactory way for it to end. In Kiri, we did find out who killed the title character, but the potential for a miscarriage of justice remained, while the characters were, again, left high and dry. Unlike National Treasure, there seems plenty of scope for the story of Kiri to continue, but the possibility of a second season has been dismissed by Thorne and Channel 4. Inconclusive endings seem to be part of Thorne’s style (and nothing wrong with that). He is reported to be considering writing a series about the Grenfell Tower disaster, which could form the third part of an impressive issue-based trilogy (gender, race and class politics?).

Of course, there were plenty more new series starting in January but, as so often happens, few of them enticed me beyond the first one or two episodes. I didn’t get very far with either McMafia or Hard Sun (why is it that you know a drama series scheduled for BBC1 on a Saturday night isn’t really going to be any good?), while two episodes of Sky’s Britannia convinced me I had seen enough. As a result, I have managed to catch up with a fair amount on DVD and Netflix, and that will be the focus of my next blog.