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.

 

The Queen regenerates!

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I’ve just finished watching season 2 of The Crown on Netflix and will certainly be back for more when it next returns. One of its many merits is the performance of Claire Foy as the young Queen Elizabeth II. Foy does not particularly resemble the Queen, but this did not matter because she was so convincing in the character. However, when the series returns, she will no longer be there – Olivia Colman will have taken over the role, in order that the ageing process is convincingly portrayed. Colman also does not particularly resemble the Queen, though I’m sure this will not matter either and that she will also be very convincing in the character. The problem is not that neither actress looks like the Queen – the problem is that they do not look like each other.

 

There is a long history in film and television of actors taking over roles in which we have previously seen a different performer – whether because there is a need for the character to age significantly as part of the narrative or for other reasons. There are some well-established rules for this process and I was reminded of them when I recently caught up with A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ excellent biopic of the American poet Emily Dickinson. The main rules are: 1. ensure you introduce the character the first time she/he appears played by a different actor; 2. make reference to the passage of time. Davies’ scriptthYQQWNMKV is a masterclass in how to follow these rules. The first time Cynthia Nixon appears (replacing Emma Bell, who plays the young Dickinson), she is being introduced by her sister and is then asked about her schooldays (“but that was many years ago”). Job done – though, just to be clear, Davies has already shown us the one actress digitally morph into the other while posing for a photograph and he further emphasises the point in the closing credits by showing a portrait of Nixon as Dickinson which morphs back into one of Bell and then into the only known daguerreotype of Dickinson, showing the strong resemblance between Bell and the real Dickinson.

 

But these rules would not work in The Crown: firstly, the Queen “needs no introduction”; secondly, it looks as though very little narrative time will have passed between the end of season 2 and the beginning of season 3. Given that several other key members of the cast will also be changing (strong rumours already of Helena Bonham-Carter replacing Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret), I suspect they will simply get on with it and expect the viewer to accept the changes without demur. There are plenty of precedents for this also – remember when Donna Reed replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie in Dallas (Lorimar, 1978-91) for one season and they then brought Bel Geddes back? They didn’t even attempt to explain the completely different hairstyles! But Dallas was a notorious show for playing loose with the conventional rules of narrative and I’ll be coming back to it later.

 

So, in a series which covers a lengthy narrative timespan, is it best to change actors or use makeup to heimatportray a character’s ageing? I guess the answer is “whatever works”. The outstanding 1984 German series Heimat, which follows life in a Hunsruck village through the 20th century, used both approaches. Most of the characters were portrayed by different actors at different points in their lives, mostly very convincingly, though the adult Hermann was about 6 inches shorter than his lanky teenage self! However, the only two characters who appear in every episode, Maria and Karl, were played by the same actors throughout, with the help of some impressive make-up and padding. It is a shame that the only true British equivalent of this series, Peter Moffat’s The Village (BBC, 2013-14), did not get further than two excellent seasons. The nearest completed thing we have is probably Peter or friendsFlannery’s Our Friends in the North (BBC, 1996), in which the lives of four friends were followed from the sixties to the nineties, with the same actors – breakthrough roles for Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Gina McKee and Mark Strong – employed throughout.

 

Mention of Christopher Eccleston brings me neatly to the show which copes most radically with changing actors in the leading role: Doctor Who. (Mind you, Daniel Craig also ended up in a role which regularly changes its impersonator) The idea of regeneration came about when the first Doctor, William Hartnell, needed to be replaced in 1966 and has since become a unique and staple feature of the show. It is an elegant solution to the problem of replacing a leading actor, but is unique to Doctor Who – probably even copyrighted. I think it unlikely we will see a regeneration scene in The Crown, involving Claire Foy and Olivia Colman – a shame, because it would not only look wonderful but, assuming the third season starts (as rumoured) with the aftermath of the JFK assassination, would be an interesting contemporary Jodie-Whittaker-Doctor-Who-Featurereference, given that the very first Doctor Who was transmitted the day after the events in Dallas (the city, not the show). To take this ludicrous suggestion even further, we have known since the Doctor Who Christmas special (much earlier, really) that the Doctor can even change sex (or, to be more precise, that they can change the sex of the actor portraying him/her), so, if traditionally male roles can now be played by women, why not have a future incarnation of the Queen on The Crown played by a man? I think Eddie Izzard would be good.

 

Stop this blog now, it’s getting TOO SILLY! Or is it? Yes, the above remarks were made in a spirit of levity but do contain a germ of sense, which is this: the title character of The Crown does regenerate, because the title character is not the Queen (she was the title character of Peter Morgan’s earlier work The Queen – the one with Helen Mirren) – the title character is the crown, or rather its personification, the monarch. And that character certainly does regenerate (and sometimes change gender), usually at the very moment of death, which is a crucial part of its mystery and its constitutional importance. It is significant that the series began before the death of George VI and also regularly references the abdication crisis of 1936, so that the importance of this transition can be recognised. Indeed, the central theme of The Crown is the conflict between the lives of the human characters and the rules, both written and unwritten, by which the constitution works and the monarchy is bound. It is when it is addressing these issues that Morgan’s writing is at its best, rather than when political and world events intervene.

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Which begs the further question – will The Crown finish when it gets close to being up-to-date (assuming it gets that far) or could it just go on and on and on? (in which case further regenerations may be necessary) Netflix are certainly onto a winning (though expensive) formula – the royal family as television soap opera. All the elements are there: difficult sibling relationships in every generation, often featuring one acting “responsibly” (usually the monarch or heir) while the younger ones bring chaos and embarrassment – from Edward and Bertie (where that relationship was reversed), through Elizabeth and Margaret, Charles and Andrew (porn-star girlfriend, wayward wife) plus Edward (I do hope Morgan royal knockoutincludes It’s a Royal Knockout!), to William and Harry; problematic marriages and clandestine affairs from the ones currently being portrayed to the even more public scandals of Charles and Diana, Andrew and Fergie and who-knows-what to come; struggles for control of the “family business”, with the remaining older generation such as the Queen Mother and Lord Mountbatten always trying to interfere, not to mention the troublesome Windsors.

 

Hmmm….sibling rivalries, troublesome marriages and affairs, struggles for control of the business, awkward relations – remind you of anything? Of course! The Crown is becoming Dallas regenerated – more so than Dallas itself was when it returned (briefly) a few years back and even echoing the abrupt changes of cast. Replace the Queen Mother with Miss Ellie, the Buckingham Palace garden parties with the Southfork barbecue and the crown itself with JR’s stetson and the comparison fits. And now that an actress from an American soap is joining the cast of the real royal family, the connection is complete. Will Meghan end up playing herself on Netflix in ten years’ time?

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Before the year is out

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Happy end-of-year holidays, everybody. Before the new year arrives, here is my list of the top ten TV things of 2017. One of the great things about doing a blog is that I can leave it until the last moment, just in case something outstanding turns up in the dying embers of the year departing. Another is that I am free of the need to balance my choices across channels or genres, or even to restrict myself to British output. The only thing I am being strict on is that the titles I include must have been first transmitted or released in 2017 – the result being that I have ended up with a list of broadcast TV. I only began using streaming platforms after my retirement and have spent most of my time on Netflix and Amazon this year catching up on things which I had not previously seen. So, while I loved shows like Stranger Things (Netflix) and One Mississippi (Amazon), and would certainly have wanted to include them in my list, I have so far only watched the first seasons from last year. Hopefully, I will be up-to-date by this time next year.

In previous years, when I have been preparing year’s best lists for the BFI or the Peabody Board, the one thing I have valued above all others is innovation and new talent, such as that behind the shows I mentioned above. But the list I have ended up with for 2017 contains so many established names – David Lynch and Mark Frost, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Jimmy McGovern, Louis Theroux, Jane Campion, David Attenborough – that I wonder if this is because TV is running out of new ideas or because I am becoming nostalgic and reactionary in my retirement! It’s probably just a coincidence that these familiar figures were responsible for my favourite work of the year.

The titles in these sorts of lists are often presented “in no particular order”, but this year saw two series which I can only describe as monumental and which have to be mentioned first. They also had a couple of things in common, despite being from very different genres. Back in 1990, two series from the United States stood out in terms of their genre re-defining impact. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks changed what a TV drama series could be, while Ken Burns’ The Civil War did the same for the historical documentary.

Quite astonishingly, Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime/Sky Atlantic) managed to re-twin peaksdefine what a TV drama in 2017 could be as brilliantly as that original series did back in 1990. It was the unmissable highlight of the year over 18 hour-long segments, though David Lynch, who directed it all as compellingly as he has ever directed anything (episode 8 was particularly stunning), said he preferred to see it as an 18-hour film and it did, indeed, make several “best film” lists (see my previous blog).

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War (PBS/BBC4) also weighed in at 18 hours,Burns but not in the version transmitted on BBC4, which was about half that length. Having now seen the full version on DVD, I cannot imagine why we didn’t get the full PBS version. There is nothing superfluous about the material which didn’t make the cut, nor anything which would be of interest to a US audience only. It is all wonderful documentary making and, being twice as long, the full version is literally twice as good. It’s the best thing Burns has done since The Civil War (and he has given us some great things in the years between).

Two drama series I have really loved reached their third and final season this year and leftoversare thus absolute musts for my top ten of the year. Firstly, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (HBO/Sky Atlantic) came to a conclusion worthy of this shatteringly emotional series. If you wanted the central mystery solved, then it was. If like me, you wanted it left a mystery and a catalyst for a superb study of loss, grief and the search for meaning, then it was that, too. For me, this has been the best series of the last 5 years and one of the best ever.

Also concluded satisfactorily was the Danish series The Legacy (Arvingerne) (DR/Sky n-the-legacy-1679-11Arts), created by Maya Ilsoe. Unlike previous Danish dramas, like The Killing or Borgen, this has been tucked away on a niche channel and, although press and online sources drew attention to the first two seasons, the third was virtually unheralded. The plotlines were occasionally a little melodramatic, but this was a series to be watched above all for the acting, which was both intense and subtle throughout, but utterly brilliant from the whole cast, especially Trine Dyrholm as Gro and Carsten Bjornlund as Frederick.

Well, I seem to be going through my list in pairs, so let’s move on to two British dramas, which are also linked thematically. Several series this this year have dealt with crises in deprived communities, including The Moorside (BBC1) and Little Boy Blue (ITV). But brokennobody does this sort of thing better than Jimmy McGovern and he was back with Broken (BBC1), another of his wonderful ensemble pieces. The drama centred around Sean Bean’s catholic priest, struggling to help members of his congregation deal with poverty, racism, gambling addiction and other social evils, while at the same time confronting his own demons.

Equally impressive was Three Girls (BBC1), which tackled the difficult subject of the three-girls-bbcRochdale sexual abuse scandal with sensitivity and incisiveness. Writer Nicole Taylor and director Philippa Lowthorpe (whose documentary background was a key element) produced a work of rare insight, but the main kudos go to the three young actresses who played the girls, alongside established stars like Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp.

Now for two British documentary series. Louis Theroux has, in recent years, changed his approach to the people whose lifestyles and problems form the basis of his documentary webANXlouistdarkstates1e1output. Whereas he previously used a faux naivete to encourage his subjects to reveal themselves, he now befriends them and displays a genuine empathy towards them, which allows him to speak frankly. In his latest series, Dark States (BBC2), he revisited familiar territory in the USA – drugs, prostitution and gun culture, but in a way which enabled him to get much closer to the heart of the issue. The one on heroin addiction in West Virginia was particularly impressive.

Probably the most spectacular and astonishing images of the year were to be found inblue-planet-ii Blue Planet II (BBC1), which can only be described as awesome. Although the reassuringly familiar tones of the evergreen Sir David Attenborough still guide us through the natural wonders on show, these programmes are now on another planet compared to the natural history programmes of previous years. Images and music combine to make sequences that can be enjoyed time and time again.

My final two choices, alas, do not make a convenient coherent pairing. Jane Campion’s top_of_the_lake_2-4Top of the Lake: China Girl (BBC2) was, like its predecessor, a police drama which wasn’t. The case in question was simply the catalyst for an examination of the impact of children (or their absence) on the leading characters lives. Campion’s work is full of memorably drawn characters and her collaborations with leading actresses (Elizabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie and Nicole Kidman standing out here) are particularly rewarding.

And so, I reach my final pick and there has been no comedy yet! (I didn’t tell you: there has to be comedy – it’s a rule!). In my first blog I was bemoaning the lack of memorable comedy this year, but a little help was soon at hand. Most of it, in keeping with my theme for the year, came from established sources and much of it from revivals. Earlier in the year I did try This Country on BBC3, which had the great merit of fresh new talent, but mockumentaries about gormless youngsters are becoming a bit of a cliché. So are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip (this year to Spain), but a very enjoyable one nevertheless. Some of my biggest laughs of the year came from the much-anticipated revival of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but only three or four of the episodes were classic Curb (I particularly liked the one with Bryan Cranston as Larry’s therapist). It was good to have Mitchell and Webb back together in the appropriately titled Back (though how Robert Webb agreed to a script which played entirely to David Mitchell’s comic strengths, I don’t know). Mitchell also featured in another of my favourites, Upstart Crow, which is the best thing Ben Elton has written since Blackadder (and the Christmas special a few days ago was very nicely judged). I also enjoyed the first season of Motherland, written by the overworked Sharon Horgan, together with Graham and Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, and the final one of Mackenzie Crook’s wonderful Detectorists. But none of these merited my final place, which goes to another revival of one of my all-time favourites: not, alas, last night’s Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out (now you see why I left this so late), which had a few wonderful moments but was not what Ileague-of-gentlemen-new-pic had asked for. The truly great comedy revival of the year was last week’s three-part League of Gentlemen (BBC2), which managed to be entirely consistent with the memory of the original show, while updating it for Brexit Britain. It was also as brilliant, as creepy and as hysterically funny as ever, without relying on nostalgia for effect. A bit like Twin Peaks in that respect, actually.

So, that’s my 10 for 2017, but I’ll say a final word about Doctor Who. In my opinion, Peter Capaldi has been the best Doctor since Patrick Troughton. His final series was not as great as the previous one, but the last episode was terrific and the Christmas/regeneration Special was a worthy tribute to the wonderful thing the show has been and a fitting introduction to the modern thing it will become.

So, Happy New Year everybody and good viewing. Here we go again.