Monty and Me

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October 5th1969 was a cool and misty autumn Sunday – I remember it like it was yesterday, rather than 50 years ago. In the late afternoon I went to visit my cousin, who was in a local hospital after an unfortunate accident. We were both fans of TV comedy – Not Only, But Also (BBC, 1965-70) and At Last the 1948 Show (Rediffusion, 1967) were particular favourites – and I told him there was a new programme starting that night on BBC1 which looked interesting. It had some excellent names involved – above all, John Cleese, who, through his radio and TV work had become a firm favourite of us both.

 

At 10.55pm my father and I sat down to watch it – the next day was the start of the school week, so this was quite late. The show opened on a seashore. A man emerged from the gentle waves and slowly made his way to the beach. He was wearing torn clothes andUnknown-4 had a straggling beard – the classic image of a castaway. He falteringly dragged himself towards the camera, collapsed and looked up into the lens – we knew this was comedy and could hear the audience laughter, so we prepared ourselves for the traditional laugh line, which was surely about to be delivered. But all he said was……….”It’s”.

 

There then followed a sequence of surreal animated images incorporating the opening title, with Cleese’s unmistakable tones calmly announcing that it was, indeed, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But, back in the studio, things were still not going as anticipated. A presenter (Graham Chapman) took his seat and a pig squealed, at which point one of a Unknown-2line of drawn pigs on a blackboard was crossed out. This became a running gag throughout the show, both in the sketches and the animations which interrupted them and (sometimes) linked them. A number of parodies of arts programmes made up the bulk of the show and the laughs began to flow (particularly, from me, at the unfortunate Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson). At the end, we got an extended sketch which seemed to be on more familiar ground – a parody of World War II movies, in which the British were developing a killer joke, that would not have been out of place in the Goon Show.

 

Finally, the castaway was prodded back into life and made his way back into the sea as the end credits rolled, incongruously giving the title of the episode as “Whither Canada?” (many years later, I won a set of Python scripts in a competition in the Independent newspaper for knowing this subtitle, a well as the line of the Lumberjack Song following “I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I like to press wild flowers” – answer at the foot of this blog). We were not to know at the time, but this was one of what became very rare occasions when the opening titles started the show and the end credits closed it, as Python began its constant parodying and flouting of television conventions.

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To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to make of that first episode. I hadn’t laughed as much as I had expected, but I had most certainly been intrigued by its bold experimentation and I knew I would be back for more. And was I ever back – back for good and for ever! And did I ever start to laugh – often uncontrollably and until it hurt and I couldn’t hear the next line. And, as that first series progressed, so the team began to develop the seamless flow of material, linked by Terry Gilliam’s brilliant animations, which became their trademark. Before long, we were getting episodes which were coherent and integrated works of genius, rather than a collection of outstanding and hilarious sketches.

Python hit me at just the right time – between finishing at school and starting at University. It was ideal fare for the student – intelligent and anarchic – and one of the first things I joined in my freshman year was the Oxford University Monty Python Appreciation Society (OUMPAS). I wasn’t one for going on street demonstrations (very images-1popular amongst students in the early 70s) but I did take part in the OUMPAS Silly Walk through the streets of Oxford. My walk was not particularly silly and could certainly have done with a government grant to develop it, but then it would have taken a lot of effort to be really silly over the distance involved. I bought all the long-playing records (the only way of re-experiencing the show at the time) and played them over and over, memorizing both the words and the inflections by osmosis. I can still give you all the cheeses from the Cheese Shop sketch, in the correct order.

 

Later on, my career as a television archivist gave me opportunities to be more than just a fan. I met all the Pythons apart, alas, from Graham. As the BBC TV Archivist, I was able to ensure that series 2 episode 13 was reconstituted as originally transmitted (with the Undertaker Sketch at the end) when the BBC Library only contained the re-edited version. When I was at the BFI, recovering lost episodes of At Last the 1948 Show brought me into contact with John, while I was able to work closely with Terry J on restoring lost material from The Complete and Utter History of Britain (LWT, 1969), recovered on an obsolete videotape format which only we could play. Terry G was a governor of the BFI while I was there, Michael a visitor to our Conservation Centre on one of his less exotic travels and Eric a guest at a National Film Theatre event.

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On the 25th anniversary in 1994, I went into a central London studio on a Sunday lunchtime to do a live satellite interview about the significance of the show on (appropriately) Canadian (CBC) breakfast television. They asked me to say that the UnknownArgument Sketch was my favourite, because that’s what they had a clip of. Fortunately, it was, indeed, one of my very favourites, so I was able to eulogise without argument. The interview was just five minutes rather than the full half-hour.

 

As I said in an earlier blog (Ten TV Programmes that “Made Me”, Aug 6 2018) my entire world outlook has been influenced by Monty Python’s Flying Circus – 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;  and, 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 or this blog. For me, personally, it is the most important television show I ever saw.

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And the answer to the second question in that Independent quiz is: “I put on women’s clothing and hang around in bars”. As if you didn’t already know.

 

 

TV Top Tens: No.2 – American Sitcoms

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It’s been a slow summer, despite a couple of splendid recent Netflix releases (Mindhunter season 2, Top Boy – I’ll come back to those), so it’s back to list-making for the time being.

 

The first of my Top Ten lists, a few months back, was British sitcoms, which I compiled in response to a Radio Times list. It therefore only seems right to follow that up with my list of American sitcoms. Doing the two separately seems the right idea, not just because there are some significant differences of approach, but because my own knowledge and experience of the two fields is very different. While I can claim to have seen every episode of all twenty of the British titles I listed (or, at least all the surviving ones of the earliest titles) I can certainly not make the same claim as regards my American list. Not only do the Americans make many more episodes than we do, but their availability here cannot be guaranteed. The list below is thus to be taken with a large pinch of salt (as are all lists, mind you). There are only three titles here (numbers 1, 3 and 4) which I have seen in their entirety and, of course, there is plenty of other material I have not seen at all.

 

Having said that, there are also some similarities between my British and American lists, most notably the tension I noted in my previous blog between the traditional (studio-based, laughter-tracked) sitcom and the more modern (single camera, no laughter) half-hour forms, though there are fewer of the latter on my American list than on my British one. Americans seem to need the affirmation of laughter, even in a more “serious” piece like M*A*S*H.

 

Unlike my British list (and because of the incompleteness of my viewing) I have not excluded titles which are still being made. I have, however, excluded anything which is a remake of a British original – so, no The Office: An American Workplace, Getting On, or All in the Family, though the originals are all on my British list. So my Top Ten “All American” sitcoms are:

 

1: Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-)

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Larry David’s masterpiece tops the list on two counts – both as one of the most innovative sitcom formats devised and for the frequency and quality of the laughs, despite the semi-improvised nature of the performances, which flourish in the brilliantly conceived plot structures. David’s instinct for what is funny and how far he can go, honed on Seinfeld, is here played to perfection.

 

2: The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sgt Bilko) (CBS, 1955-59)

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Filmed “as live”, the show’s hilarity derived from the seemingly spontaneous nature of the performances and Silvers’ impeccable comic timing. Bilko is simply one of the great comic creations – a selfish loafer saved from being totally despicable by his quick-witted charm. A multiple Emmy winner in its time, yet unaccountably omitted from the canons of both Bianculli and Sepinwall/Seitz (see earlier blog) its reputation is clearly in need of restoration.

 

3: Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-98)

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Larry David’s earlier masterpiece, and no apology for including both in my top three – for much the same reason, too: innovation and great comedy. The fourth season, in which Jerry and George (Larry’s alter ego) devise a sitcom based on their own lives and pitch it to the network, thus simultaneously “explaining” the nature of what we are watching, is a watershed moment in comedy.

 

4: Louie (FX, 2010-15)

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If any series took Seinfeld further, it was this rather than Curb. However, the superficial similarity of having the central character be a stand-up comedian (as in real life) going about his daily life in New York, masks some fundamental shifts, most notably Louis CK’s original approach of including unrelated sequences in single episodes. The fluidity of both style and content comes across as a kind of stream-of-consciousness – and it can be brutally honest.

 

5: M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-83)

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One of the longest-running and possibly the best-loved of all US TV sitcoms, it clearly hit a nerve in post-Vietnam America. It totally eclipsed the feature film on which it was based, which, being an Altman film, was episodic in nature with a large ensemble cast and thus the perfect basis for sitcom.

 

6: I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-57)

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As important for the significance of its production and distribution models as for that of its content, I Love Lucy is undoubtedly the key title from the early years of television sitcom. It set so many conventions that it may itself look a little conventional in retrospect, but the quality of comic invention was uneven from episode to episode.

 

7: Cheers (NBC, 1982-93)

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The best ensemble cast of all – many prominent careers were launched from the Boston bar where everybody knows your name and the situation was so strong that it could easily survive the departure of key cast members and re-invent itself. It’s spin-off, Frasier, itself became one of the key titles of the 1990s.

 

8: Black-ish (ABC, 2014-)

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The real breakthrough for the portrayal of African Americans in TV sitcom. Yes, The Cosby Show pre-dates it by three decades, but that was essentially a conventional comedy which only differed from those around it because of the colour of the faces and only rarely tackled issues pertaining to the black community. Black-ish puts those issues at centre stage and builds its comedy deftly around them, while at the same time presenting, as Cosby did, a traditional sitcom family of likeable characters.

 

9: The Dick van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-66)

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Created by Your Show of Shows writer Carl Reiner and based on his experiences, The Dick van Dyke Show offered two sits for its com: domestic and workplace, the latter being the writer’s room of a TV sketch show. And it eagerly grabbed the myriad possibilities offered by both, being consistently funny and entertaining. Co-star Mary Tyler Moore went on to make her own highly significant contribution to the production of TV comedy.

 

10: Taxi (ABC, 1978-83)

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Second only to Cheers in the “great ensemble cast” stakes, this was an excellent example of the characters, rather than the situation, being the situation. The characters are trapped in a purgatory from which they can briefly emerge but to which they must always return. Great performances from Danny de Vito, Christopher Lloyd and the enigmatic Andy Kaufman.

 

As with my British list, I will also offer you my “next ten” (11-20), which also allows me to acknowledge some outright classics, some of which probably deserve to be higher and maybe would have been if I had seen more of them.

 

11: Master of None (Netflix, 2015-)

12: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (Filmways, 1976-77)

13: Soap (ABC, 1977-81)

14: Roseanne (Carsey-Werner, 1988-2018)

15: Better Things (FX, 2016-)

16: The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-77)

17: The Larry Sanders Show (HBO, 1992-98)

18: Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009-2015)

19: Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004)

20: Happy Days (ABC, 1974-84)

 

 

So, if I were to combine my British and American top tens to make a general sitcom list (there aren’t any from anywhere else in the world that would make it!), what would it look like? I think my top three US titles would replace my bottom three British ones, but I guess that only goes to show my personal bias and how unreliable this list is.

 

Super Over the Moon

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Having finally come down off the ceiling, following England’s unbelievable and thrilling victory in the Cricket World Cup Final (Channel 4/Sky Sports) – and before football grabs my full attention again – it is a good time to try to unpick what there was about it that made it a great piece of TV and what was the magic of sport at its most intense. Of course, the “magic of sport” works both ways: the most magical moments that come to mind are always the ones when the team (or individual) you support triumphs. Having waited so long for England to win the Cricket World Cup and for it then to happen in such an incredibly close and tense way obviously has an impact on my feelings (and sport is nothing if not an emotional and partisan experience – I have absolutely no time for “neutrals” or the concept of “may the best team win”), but I also know I wouldn’t feel quite the same way if I were a Kiwi.

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As is often the case with cricket, a memorable finish is often preceded by an ordinary contest – one of the great glories of the sport is how the climactic turning points, which can be extremely intense in both the five-day and one-day versions of the game, arrive out of otherwise attritional play – but you have to watch it all to appreciate and understand the importance of those moments. In television terms, the close but relatively unexplosive first 90% of the World Cup Final was unremarkable, but once Stokes and Buttler had painstakingly brought England to within reach of a potentially dramatic victory, it required those providing the television coverage to raise their own game to do the situation justice. Together, the cricket team and the TV team provided something unforgettable. Cutaways to crowd behaviour, previously a filler for quieter moments, suddenly added to the intensity. Close ups of the players’ faces revealed the emotional turmoil they were going through. Replays of every amazing incident – the six which was nearly a catch, the four overthrows off the diving Stokes’ bat – were analysed to infinity. Putting all this together and retaining the flow of the game required brilliance from the TV team.

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Then, with the teams tied, we got to the unprecedented “super over” – the vital explanation of how it would work (I’m sure very few people knew – unlike a penalty shoot-out it was such an unlikely possibility) was deftly done and the speculation on tactics was spot-on. The fact that the super over itself ended tied was just too much, but we all knew that England would win in that situation, as did the teams, so the excitement was even more intense. The run out off the final ball was brilliantly covered and we were able to jump up and down with rapture even though the on-field umpire called for a replay. In an earlier blog on VAR, I lamented the loss of the ecstatic moment which referral technology can bring, but in this case we could see England had won and the team knew it, too, so their wild celebrations could be effectively covered, just like those at Edgbaston back in 2005.

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Another point about the World Cup Final was how many channels it was shown across, with Sky allowing live free-to-air coverage on Channel 4 and More 4, with C4 providing their own commentary team. Add BBC radio and it was truly a cross-media event, much like the Apollo 11 coverage exactly 50 years ago, which has been the subject of a large number of commemorative programmes.

 

The live coverage of the World Cup Final will be preserved for the future – the BFI has been recording Channel 4 programmes off-air since 1985 and nowadays automatically records its complete output, as it was seen by the viewer. The situation was much different back in 1969. No recordings of the coverage of the landing on the moon or the first moon walk were made by either the BBC or ITV. Yes, we have the NASA feed, but not Michelmore, Burke and Moore in the BBC studio, or David Frost on ITV. The situation is much the same in other countries – many years ago the International Federation of Television Archives asked its members if they had recordings of their own coverage of the event and very few did.

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However, there is plenty of filmed and news material extant, and, of course, the coverage was well recorded in the USA, so we do have the major networks’ output. This material formed the basis of the two main documentaries transmitted to mark the anniversary – one on BBC, the other on Channel 4. Both took the theme of “liveness” as their main approach and both used the American TV coverage, snippets of news from elsewhere and the recordings of the astronauts’ conversations with their Houston Space Center base. The only real difference was that the BBC documentary used the audio recordings as the basis for reconstructions, with actors playing the astronauts and lip-synching to the recordings. As a result, the Channel 4 documentary was by far the better piece.

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It also meant there was more time given over on Channel 4 to the US TV coverage, which for me was the main draw, especially the CBS recordings featuring the wonderful Walter Cronkite – an incredibly eloquent and authoritative presenter who even managed to impress with the quality of his commentaries when he was saying that he could find no words to convey the magnitude of what we were seeing. Just as he did on the famous recording of his announcement of JFK’s death, it was the simple act of taking off his glasses which spoke the loudest. I once had the honour of meeting him and having a brief chat – this was at the opening reception of the 2005 International Federation of Television Archives Conference in New York, hosted by our colleagues at CBS News, at which he was the special guest. He was long retired at that stage, of course, but still had a lively engagement with what was going on in the world of TV news.

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Both documentaries demonstrated what was missing from the archives without the need to acknowledge it. Much the same would be true of a retrospective cricket compilation from the same era or well into the eighties, because all the footage would come from the evening highlights programmes – most of the daytime transmissions were not kept.

 

So, am I putting the World Cup Final onto my shortlist for best of the year?  I think not, on the grounds that I recognise my own massive bias in this case. Yes, the coverage was great, but the event was greater. Live television (as distinct from news journalism) does have a place at annual awards ceremonies, but there are only usually a couple of categories (sports and events) and they are always relegated to the “awards presented earlier” section of what actually gets broadcast. Which is a shame, because they can be truly iconic. On the other hand, they are also “of the moment” and can never really be appreciated in quite the same way on replay, even in a highlights show the same evening – as someone who often follows the advice to “look away now” in order to avoid seeing results which may alter the enjoyment of an imminent highlights show, I can attest that the excitement is just not the same, even if you don’t know what happened. When such things are re-visited in years to come, as with the Moon landing coverage, it is usually for either nostalgic or academic reasons. You can get a sense of the excitement of the moment, but not truly feel it in the same way.

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A Year of Two Halves?

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Half way through the year and it’s been a real corker, at least by my own criteria: at this point last year, I had shortlisted 8 titles for my year’s top ten – this year the figure is 15! Many of those critical sources which do the same are reaching the same conclusion, though not necessarily citing the same titles as me, but there does seem to be a consensus that this is a vintage year.

 

In previous blogs I pointed out several things about which I was enthusiastic, but I was waiting for them to finish before shortlisting them (or not). So, I am happy to confirm that the two titles I anticipated adding to my list from my blog of 31stMay, Chernobyl Unknown-7(Sky Atlantic) and The Virtues (Channel 4), will indeed feature and very strongly so – both maintained the qualities I described to their respective ends and I think they are probably the two best drama series of the year so far. The Virtues provided an extended finale of even greater intensity than the episodes which led up to it, with the main plotlines leading to two simultaneous and harrowing confrontations with different, though unpredictable, outcomes (I won’t spoil it – do watch it if you haven’t already). And the extra information we were given during the end credit sequence of the final episode of Chernobyl was a devastating climax of its own – I’ve never seen that device used so effectively.

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Also in my 31stMay blog, I mentioned that I was enjoying Russell T.Davies’ Years and Years (BBC1), but without any confidence that it would feature on my shortlist. The closing episodes made me change my mind, as the way it finished fully justified the somewhat over-the-top approach it had taken throughout. It turned out that the whole story had been extracted from the brain of the character Edith (Jessica Hynes), who was Unknown-3wired up to a mind-reading device in a futuristic scene reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus (BBC/Channel, 4 1996). And Anne Reid’s soliloquy about automated check-outs really hit a nerve – I always queue for the human-operated tills in my local Waitrose and refuse any offers to help me with the automated section – now I can say “didn’t you see Years and Years?” as well. If you look at it as political satire rather than drama, it has a much greater resonance.

 

Going a bit further back, I confirmed in the comments section of my 13thMay blog that Daisy Haggard’s Back to Life is shortlisted, so the declared shortlist reads:

 

Les Miserables (BBC1)

True Detective (Sky Atlantic)

Moon and Me (cBeebies)

Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil (BBC2)

Three Identical Strangers (Channel 4)

Fleabag (BBC1)

Back to Life (BBC1)

Mum (BBC2)

Chernobyl (Sky Atlantic)

The Virtues (Channel 4)

Years and Years (BBC1)

63 Up (ITV)

Janet Baker: in her own words (BBC4)

One Day in Gaza (BBC2)

 

…..which makes 14, the 15thshortlisted programme being a recent release which I had not blogged about yet.

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Back in February last year, the first of my “TV Catch-Up” blogs considered the classic HBO western series Deadwood (2004-6) and one of the reasons I gave for watching it complete at that time was the tantalising prospect that a concluding movie was in the pipeline, all those years after its screen life was prematurely curtailed. Well, that has now arrived and was aired on Sky Atlantic at precisely the same time as it went out in the US, that is 2am! As a way of wrapping up the story, it worked spectacularly well. There wasn’t as much consideration of the building of American society, which was one of the factors which made the three seasons so memorable, but there was as much as you could hope for in the limited time allowed. The style, the distinctive use of language and the characters had hardly changed, but the (fictional) ten-year gap since the end of season three was masterfully handled by David Milch and his wonderful cast – it was great to be back in their world and very little in the way of catch-up was required. The ending was a great nod to classic western tropes and, alas, the last thing we will get from Milch – one of the true giants of TV drama. Given that this is one of the greatest American series of them all, a fitting finale was always going to be one of the highlights of the year. Just as with 63 Up, it earns a place on the shortlist as much as for what it has been as for what it was this year.

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So, I already have an outstanding list, five of which (not saying which ones) I regard as absolute nailed-on certainties for my top ten of the year. However, if the second half of the year is only half as good as the first, then I may have some very difficult decisions to make. It couldn’t be, could it?

 

Well, we are in a bit of a summer lull at the moment, with only Catch 22 (Channel 4) demanding my regular attention, but that is to be expected. I was, however, glued to my screen all day last Sunday for the Cricket World Cup Final and I still can’t get my head around whether that was one of the great pieces of TV of the year or whether it was the incredible nature of the contest itself which makes it seem so. I think I may return to that next time.

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Up the Past

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Well, I promised that 63 Up (ITV) would form part of my next blog, so here we go. I also named it as a certainty for my running shortlist before I had seen a minute of it because of what it has been, which is an essential part of what it is now. It had already earned its place on my list, even though this edition did turn out to be a little less impactful than previous ones. It had a certain valedictory air, which may be because Michael Apted’s own advancing age makes him question whether he will be around to do it again inUnknown-2 another seven years’ time. Each participant was asked to comment on the original premise of the series – that a person’s character and life path is set at the age of seven – which gave an air of things being wrapped up, at least in the event that there is to be no more. Hopefully this will turn out to be a “just in case” precaution, but I think Apted needs to work out a way of letting it go on without him, because it is too important to let go until the last possible moment. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without Apted’s skill as a film-maker and as an interviewer, but maybe there could be just a small-scale studio get-together every seven years when he’s no longer around.

 

It also struck me that there seemed to be a lot more questions about the participants’ views of political events this time around – in particular, Apted was keen to ask many of them about their attitudes to Brexit. Given that several of them have moved abroad or have family or business connections overseas, while others see themselves as firmly British, this was a fruitful line of enquiry. It also spoke to questions of identity, which have characterised the series throughout.

 

Overall, the series has perhaps become a little predictable now. Tony’s story usually comes first, to hook you in, while Neil’s is last, to keep you watching to the end. The first death in the group, that of Lynn, was very well handled at the end of the middle part, Unknownwhile the grave illness of Nick was also saddening, but otherwise it seemed to be business as usual, though with less to report. The series has mirrored my own life throughout (I was eleven when it started) and “less to report” is pretty much where I am now, too – that’s the main condition of retirement. Coming back every seven years has also worked particularly well with people of this vintage, especially as it only became clear that would happen gradually – with the impact of social media, it wouldn’t be the same for people of later generations, because their lives would be too obviously impacted by their fame. That has happened a little bit in the Up series, but not enough to affect its trajectory.

 

Up is pretty reliable when it comes to the credibility of its participants’ testimony. This may be because it involves “ordinary people” who are not considering their own place in history or attempting to remember more than seven years ago. There have, however, been a number of recent documentaries I would like to mention here, which have relied on the memories of more famous people or have demonstrated how they can be distorted, in one case even deliberately.

 

Going back a couple of months, one of my very favourite documentaries of this year has to be John Bridcut’s Janet Baker: in her own words (BBC4) a wonderful and poignant portrait of one of this country’s greatest ever singers. Baker retired (suddenly) 30 years ago and is now 85 but comes across as incredibly lucid and eloquent as she looks directly into Bridcut’s camera and recalls her glory days. She is, of course, aided by a tremendous catalogue of recordings, both sound and vision. Her core repertoire, as well as the details of her life (she has been caring for her disabled husband for many years) makes theUnknown-3 overall impression very emotional and wistful. Bridcut has a tremendous capacity for filming people simply listening to music which speaks volumes without a word being uttered (he did much the same in his documentary on Herbert von Karajan a few years back). This is a documentary which speaks to me as directly as the Up series – I have most of the Baker recordings featured on my shelves and my years of discovering classical music coincided with Baker at her peak. It is one most definitely for the shortlist.

 

The five-part Thatcher: A Very British Revolution (BBC2), on the other hand, was a recent history told at a distance but by people with their own place in it to cement. Mind you, as John Nott pointed out at the start, not many of Thatcher’s first cabinet are left. There were three main witnesses, interviewed at length: Norman Tebbit, Bernard Ingham and Michael Heseltine (John Major was strangely absent) and, although they all had interesting stories to tell, they also all had their own spin to apply to them. There were some obvious parallels for today, especially with a Tory leadership campaign going on and Europe still dividing the party. Ingham’s incredulous “who would want to lead a Unknown-4Tory government?” was a highlight. There was also some great archival material, including Norman Tebbit’s rescue from the Brighton bomb which was broadcast live on BBC Breakfast Time and has, for a long time, remained un-repeated at his request. I remember watching it at the time and thinking what a striking piece of television it was – the stricken Tebbit, covered in dust and wearing only barely in-place pyjama bottoms, being slowly lowered from the rubble by many hands – a scene resembling Renaissance depictions of Christ’s descent from the cross. The series contained a number of such resonant sequences but, as a whole, contained very little which we didn’t know or which had not been covered in previous series.

 

Even further along the scale, Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Netflix) is deliberately fictionalised documentary making, maybe recognising that attempting to present any sort of “truth” about this subject matter was both impossibleUnknown-5 and probably less fun. Dylan himself is certainly in on the joke and it may well have been his idea. But what the hell, it captures a time and a mood and gives us some fantastic concert footage. It is often said in relation to drama documentaries that they aim to present a “higher truth” when they do not necessarily stick to verifiable facts, and I guess that also applies when what is ostensibly a documentary contains “mockumentary” elements. Whatever, I certainly enjoyed it, but I don’t think it is in the same league as the same director’s No Direction Home (PBS, 2005)

 

Much more recent history was presented in Olly Lambert’s One Day in Gaza (BBC2) transmitted exactly one year after the events it depicts (except in America, where the usually estimable PBS series Frontline shamefully pulled it just before transmission and has yet to re-schedule it). This is a case where there is plenty of evidential footage but also many different “truths” about what happened. Lambert’s doc was very well constructed, with just the right balance of actuality and context. Some of that actuality was remarkably vivid and the drone footage gave it an epic feel. The slow reveals in the interviews (the mother clutching her dead son’s vest, the activist who had lost a leg) personalised the individual experiences of a chaotic situation. Olly Lambert has made a number of films in and about Gaza and obviously has good contacts and made great choices. As for its value as a piece of history, only time will tell, but for the present it is one of the best windows on the Israel/Palestine situation and a must for my shortlist.

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And that shortlist is growing long. It’s been a wonderful year so far. Next time I will update the list for my usual halfway report.

Better Left Unsaid

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In my last blog, I praised the writing and direction of Don’t Forget the Driver for often advancing the narrative wordlessly. I took it for granted that this is an admirable trait and that the opposite, overly heavy-handed exposition, is to be decried, mainly because the speech patterns involved sound so unnatural. Yes, the story has to be advanced, but, even if things are left unclear, I far prefer the minimalist approach and ambiguity can also be a positive virtue. A number of the current new batch of dramas and comedies (and, yes, dramatic-comedies) inspire me to expand upon this theme.

 

The gold standard in this regard is Stefan Golaszewski’s Mum, back on BBC2 (Wednesdays) for its 3rdand final season, and available complete on BBC i-player (and I Unknown-1must admit that I love this show so much I have already watched every episode twice!). As it is actually about a group of people who find it almost impossible to articulate their feelings, it is no surprise that what is left unsaid is more important than what is spoken. I noted in my blog about the second season, back in April last year, that that it contained a number of extended contemplative scenes and found all the characters in a limbo where nothing happened. Well, the third season finds matters resolving at last and difficult conversations are had, but Golaszewski still finds plenty of time for awkward silences and contemplative moments. One big difference is that the season covers a week in the characters’ lives, rather than a year, much as the final season of Him and Her (BBC, 2010-13) took the characters out of their bedsit for the first time. The setting is still a house, though a much grander one, and the action of each day seemingly takes place in close to real time, as before.

 

All the characters have moved on (just a little, of course) from the stasis of season two and their main problems I identified in my earlier blog seem resolved: Cathy and Michael know they want each other, though the difficulty in reconciling both Jason and Dave’s parents to this remains (and forms the main thread of the new season); Jason and Kelly have finally moved into their own flat and Kelly is pregnant (though hopelessly imagestrying to hide the fact); Pauline’s divorce has come through (and her settlement is paying for the week in the grand house), but she is still clearly uncertain about where she is going, and is as obnoxious as ever and doesn’t fit with the group; and Maureen’s dementia seems to have relented somewhat, possibly now that she has discovered the joy of the i-pad.

 

Making the silences and the awkwardness work is as much (if not more) down to the writing and direction, as it is to the acting.  Maybe that’s why Golaszewski took over directing duties for the second and third seasons – because he knew exactly where it was going, what he wanted and how it would work. Again, I mentioned in my previous blog how I was a little uncertain of his initial approach in the second season, but how it had been vindicated by the end – well, now it makes even more glorious sense. His plan was clearly fully formed.

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For me, the key silences of the current season occur in the scenes where Derek does not reply when Pauline asks if she is an awful person and the one between Cathy and Maureen in the final episode, where Cathy says what she wants about moving on two years after Dave’s death while Maureen simply stares silently into the distance. So much in Mum is unsaid or misunderstood that the moments of clarity and honesty are ultra-startling – most notably Michael’s declaration of love to Cathy, made with such gushing eloquence that it must have come as a shock to that usually taciturn character himself. It is inspired by, and echoes, Cathy’s similar outburst near the end of season two. Then there is the magnificent cheer-out-loud moment in the final episode when Cathy tells Pauline to go fuck herself (comparable in impact to David Brent saying much the same to Finchy in the Office finale). And the ending – oh, the ending! – as Golaszewski has his cake and eats it by rewarding us with the sight of Cathy and Michael happy together, but allowing his other cast members to critique it at the same time (“bit trite, just walking into the distance”).

 

It would be too much to hope that Mum should receive the honours it deserves in the categories it deserves them – in other words the proper acting awards, not the ones for comedy performance. I can only honour it by putting it straight onto my own shortlist, which I will also formally enlarge at this point with Back to Life, which finished very well since I blogged about it last time out. And one last aside about Mum – in my previous blog I wondered how the episodes would be titled, given that the first two series had used every month of the year. The answer was that each episode had a day of the week (given the contracted time-scale), from Monday to Saturday, as its title – this came up in white on a black background after the opening credits, which showed the imposing facade of the grand house, and in silence after the last strong beat of “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”, which made it look a bit like The Shining!

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Also in my last blog, I mentioned that new drama series by Russell T. Davies and Shane Meadows were on the horizon. These duly arrived in the same week, on consecutive nights, and so are not only ripe for comparison, but exhibit contrasting versions of the theme under discussion here. Davies’ Years and Years (BBC1, Tuesdays) follows a large family, focussing on four siblings, through a speculative future, beginning in the present. In so doing it addresses pretty much every current political and social issue and then some. The first episode breathlessly covered the years 2019 to 2024, ending in startling fashion with the start of a nuclear war. That, however, proves something of a damp squib (!), and the family’s travails are covered in more depth and at a (slightly) slower pace in subsequent episodes. It is very wordy, very frantic and it (just about) works because of Davies’ trademark wit, though as a speculation on what the future may bring it is no Black Mirror. The characters all have a function as conduits for various issues, but the strength of the cast (Rory Kinnear, Jessica Hynes, Russell Tovey, Emma Thompson et al) ensures that they are not just cyphers.

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This is Davies at his most unrestrained, which is not to everybody’s taste and not particularly to mine, as it can be very hit and miss, with plenty to admire, but almost as much to put you off. Last year’s A Very English Scandal was so good because he found an existing subject which fitted him perfectly. This is nearer to his earlier Cucumber (Channel 4, 2015) which contained some phenomenal moments (and one unforgettable episode in particular), but overall was less than the sum of its parts.

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By total contrast, Shane Meadows’ The Virtues (co-written with This Is England collaborator Jack Thorne) is brooding and intense. Where the opening episode of Years and Years raced through 5 years of narrative, the first of The Virtues covered two days representing a turning point in the life of semi-autobiographical protagonist Joseph (Stephen Graham). Indeed, the entire segment between the first break and the second consists solely of Joseph getting drunk after saying goodbye to his son, who is emigrating to Australia with his mother and her new partner, while the rest of the episode consists of his impulsive journey to Ireland to confront the ghosts of his past. Apart from a confrontation with a jobsworth in the ferry office, very little is said in any scene, but the presence of Graham keeps you riveted to the screen at all times. So far, the formula has been repeated across three of the four episodes as we gradually edge towards what Joseph must face up to.

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Now, obviously these two series are doing different things and the differing scales of narrative demand the different approaches, but for me the minimalist approach of The Virtues communicates a great deal more. Other recent dramas show yet further different approaches to the issue. Stephen Poliakoff has never been shy of employing expository dialogue, though it works better in his most recent offering, Summer of Rockets (BBC2, Wednesdays) than in some of his previous pieces. Indeed, the series itself works better than most recent Poliakoff, which had fallen into an overly-familiar and formulaic pattern of sameness. Despite the usual period setting and sumptuous visuals, this one actually has a decent storyline and some interesting characters and at least I haven’t given up at the first episode, as I did with each of his last three series. Episode two did contain one of the most ludicrous pieces of unnecessary dialogue I have heard of late, though, when a character woke up in bed after a dream sequence and exclaimed “thank goodness that didn’t really happen”!

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Sally Wainwright, on the other hand, has usually employed fairly pithy dialogue, at least images-3in her contemporary dramas, but give her a period piece and a sudden need to explain seems to take over. It certainly has in Gentleman Jack (BBC1, Sundays), which I’m afraid I have given up on. I should have known it wouldn’t be for me when the Radio Times described it as “roistering”, which is one of those buzz words which usually warns me off something (“caper” is another) – subtlety is what I prize most in drama.

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One more of the current glut of interesting dramas should be mentioned here, and it is one in which explanatory dialogue is very necessary but is perfectly naturally integrated in the script. I mentioned in my previous blog that Chernobyl (Sky Atlantic, Tuesdays) had started strongly and it has very much continued in that vein. The international cast is excellent, the locations totally convincing and the effects brilliantly handled, but the most impressive thing is how the magnitude of the event is conveyed in a way which has had a greater impact than any amount of documentaries or writing before – part of this images-4involves lengthy explanations given by scientists to government figures, just as I imagine must have happened in reality, but there are also plenty of moments where the visuals alone tell the story. It’s extremely impressive. Interestingly, Chernobyl also featured in one of the most striking sequences in David Attenborough’s new series for Netflix, Our Planet, in which he showed how nature is now reclaiming the abandoned and still poisonous townscapes near to where the disaster happened.

 

So, The Virtues and Chernobyl are hovering on the edge of my shortlist, awaiting confirmation when they finish, and I will update it at the half-way stage at the end of June. It has already been an outstanding year and I have a couple of recent documentaries to add to the list, plus 63 Up, which is on ITV next week and is, by its very presence, a certainty for the list before I have even seen a minute of it! I guess that is my next blog sorted.

If You Didn’t Laugh…….

 

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Following on from my previous blog on sitcoms, and with particular attention to the issue I am constantly returning to – the emergence and growing primacy of the half-hour dramatic comedy form – two more recent examples are currently lighting up Monday and Tuesday nights on BBC1 and 2 with some of the darkest comedy we have yet seen. I say “dramatic comedy” because I think that is probably the best descriptor for the genre. The BBC announcer recently described one of the two new titles as “comedy-drama”, but that is not a particularly new idea – it is a term which has previously been applied mainly to programmes with a dramatic form and comedic elements, such as Cold Feet (ITV). The newer developments are essentially comedy forms (sitcom) with serious subjects and narrative progression. “Form” here is mainly a question of length – with hour-long or 50-minute episodes being associated with things that are primarily drama, and half-hour/25 minutes for comedy. But in the age of binging and streaming that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) really matter anymore; series creators can now set out to make half-hour episodes without foregrounding either the drama or comedy elements. The only time the genre descriptor matters is when it comes to awards, which are important for recognition: some great acting performances either get lost or are submitted for comedy awards (such as Leslie Manville in Mum), while some shows, like Inside No9, seem to get overlooked because they fall between so many stools.

 

So, to the two new shows I want to consider. As well as both being on the dark side and both being made immediately available in full on the BBC i-player, they have a number of other things in common. Both have been created and co-written by somebody previously known only for their acting, most recently in sitcoms.  Both feature fine ensemble casts of quietly desperate characters. Both are set in fading English seaside towns.

 

Toby Jones’ Don’t Forget the Driver (BBC2, Tuesdays) seems at times like an attempt at a “state of the nation” comedy (particularly in the context of Brexit), but in its quieter, imagesmore character-driven moments, is reminiscent of Detectorists, on which Jones, previously better known for his dramatic roles, cut his sitcom teeth. Jones’ main character, Pete, is a similar ineffectual but decent everyman and, again, is living with a daughter from a failed marriage. He works as a coach driver in Bognor Regis, a town I am very familiar with from childhood holidays and one which, probably because of its “funny” name and association with the phrase “bugger Bognor”, referenced here, has often featured in sitcoms – it was the Steptoes’ regular holiday destination. I say “main” character, because Jones also plays Pete’s twin brother Barry, who has emigrated to Australia and is seen via skype, but returns to Bognor as the series progresses. While the taciturn Pete carries most of the bleak plotlines, Jones indulges himself in some knockabout comedy, too, through the character of Barry.

 

The dark elements are foregrounded from the opening scene, when Pete finds the dead body of a would-be immigrant washed up on Bognor beach (in a Bergmanesque dream sequence later on, he turns the body over to find it has his face). The immigration issue takes centre stage when Pete unwittingly brings Rita, an Eritrean girl, back from a trip to France, hidden in his coach, then rescues and hides her from the people traffickers who are waiting to pick her up. But, yes, this is a comedy.

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The cast of characters and the situations they are placed in do seem to have been created to represent facets of contemporary Britain and sometimes the “little England” symbolism gets a bit heavy-handed, quite literally so in the episode in which Pete takes a group to visit a model village. However, the direction, by the excellent Tim Kirkby, is very subtle and the way the narrative is often advanced wordlessly is impressive. The fact Unknown-2that Rita’s story is happily resolved in the final episode and the main characters return to their ongoing lives, including Pete and Barry’s mother Joy (Marcia Warren) battling with dementia, daughter Kayla (Erin Kellyman) attempting to leave home and rejoin her mother in Birmingham and roadside burger-bar owner Fran (Claire Rushbrook) trying to get Pete’s affection, indicates that we will probably be set for a second season, which would be very welcome.

 

If Toby Jones had been taking notes and gaining inspiration during the making of Detectorists, then Daisy Haggard must have spent most of her time on Episodes, during which she was given faces to pull rather than lines to learn, actually creating Back to Life (BBC1, Mondays), which she has co-written with Laura Solon. This is an even darker piece, in which Haggard plays Miri, released from prison after serving 18 years for a brutal murder and resuming her life with her parents in their middle-class home inUnknown-1 Hythe, on the Kent coast. So far, so Rectify, except there is no doubt about Miri’s guilt, though there are some mysterious mitigating circumstances about the murder which emerge slowly as the series progresses (and I haven’t watched it all yet, so there may be revelations to come). And, yes, this too is a comedy, though a highly dramatic one and packed with a fine cast – Geraldine James particularly outstanding as Miri’s wayward mother and Adeel Akhtar as Miri’s neighbour, trying to cope with caring for an unstable and foul-tongued aunt.

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Haggard plays Miri as a relatively “normal” and well-adjusted person, trying to reconnect with life, get a job and survive the hostility she receives. There is little indication (at least not yet) of any psychological effects on her of her crime or of her years in prison. Indeed, it is the characters who surround her who seem the most damaged and in need of help, which she is happy to provide. The series is very well written and performed and provides constant moments of shock and surprise, but not that many laughs, though when the laugh lines do appear, they certainly hit home.

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The half-hour form has provided most of the best TV of the year so far, and we still have the final season of Mum to come. Back to Life took over Fleabag’s slot and, while it can’t quite compare to that masterpiece, it certainly hasn’t failed to make an impact. Of the two series I have discussed here, it is the one most likely to make my shortlist for the year’s best, though I will wait until I have seen it all to decide. In the meantime, I am expecting this year’s “dramatic improvement” to arrive imminently. Sky Atlantic’s Chernobyl has made a very strong start and there are new series from Russell T. Davies and Shane Meadows looming on the near horizon. Happy days.