2020 Hindsight

 

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The turning of the decade has produced a large number of cultural lists, including plenty of the best TV of the 2010s, so I will take the opportunity to join the fun. The lists have varied in number from ten to a hundred, though it seems that, in most cases, the list-maker has probably settled on the number which best fits what he, she or they wanted to include (or, more likely, didn’t want to exclude). I will go for 25 but will include factual titles as well as the drama and comedy which exclusively make up many of the lists.

 

Enough has been written and spoken about the developments which gave us such a great decade of television – and so much of it – that there is little point repeating it here. For me personally, the defining experience of the decade was being invited onto the Peabody Board of Jurors, which both sharpened my critical faculties and meant I had to engage with American television in much greater depth than I had ever done before. And it was the perfect time to do so (I served on the board from 2011 to 2016), as this was the time of greatest innovation in all genres. I can point to a number of documentaries and series on my list which initially came to my attention through Peabody, including my number 1 pick.

 

Of course, British TV remained my professional focus until my retirement in late 2016, and that is also reflected here. At the same time, the availability of the best things from around the world on British TV platforms also increased as never before, so the choice was wide. I have omitted anything which debuted before 2010, even though its main impact may have been in the decade in question, so no Breaking Bad, Getting On, The Thick of It or Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.

 

Counting down from 25 to 1, my best TV of the 2010s is as follows:

 

25: Listen to Me, Marlon (Passion Pictures, 2015)

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Outstanding documentary by Stevan Riley which uses Brando’s own tape-recorded legacy, together with a wealth of brilliantly sourced archive material, to tell the actor’s story as you’ve never heard or seen it before. Who’s Marion? (sorry: in-joke for my Peabuddies)

 

24: The Legacy (Arvingerne) (DR, 2014-17)

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Danish TV drama hit the world with Scandi noir titles in the previous decade, but continued to produce outstanding material in other genres in the 2010s, such as the political drama Borgen, the historical epic 1864 and this melodramatic family saga which featured the best ensemble acting of the decade from Trine Dyrholm, Jesper Christensen and the rest.

 

23: The Secret History of Our Streets (BBC, 2012-14)

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Television social history at its finest and most accessible in this documentary series from BBC, Open University and Century films, examining social change over more than a century in the minutest detail, literally street by street.

 

22: How to Die: Simon’s Choice (BBC, 2016)

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Voluntary euthanasia has been the subject of a number of documentaries, but never one as moving or involving as this. Simon himself provides a magnetic focus, but the effects of his decisions on his family and friends is equally devastating.

 

21: Fargo (FX, 2014-17)

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To make a riveting and highly entertaining original drama series in the spirit of the Coens’ movie was a magnificent achievement by Noah Hawley. To repeat the trick twice more was little short of miraculous.

 

20: All Aboard: The Canal Trip (BBC, 2015)

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OK, slow TV was invented in Norway, but was never put to better use than in this glorious two-hour real-time journey along a beautiful section of the Kennet and Avon Canal. It shouldn’t work, but it keeps you enthralled for the duration. Just like my canal walks along the Grand Union, though, alas, without the fitness benefits.

 

19: This is England ’86, ’88 and ’90 (Channel 4, 2010-15)

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Some of the most searingly intense moments of the decade were provided by Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne’s ongoing working-class saga, as well as some of the most memorably comic. A great cast of characters and superb work from Vicky McClure, Stephen Graham and the rest of a brilliant cast.

 

18: Life According to Sam (HBO, 2013)

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The most outstanding of a number of great HBO single documentaries I watched as part of my Peabody duties. It tells the inspirational story of a young sufferer from the deadly wasting disease progeria and his parents’ attempts to combat the condition worldwide.

 

17: Fleabag (BBC, 2016-19)

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A wonderful first series and an even better second. Funny, honest, innovative, constantly surprising, brilliantly acted by all the cast and, above all, superbly written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

 

16: 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony (BBC, 2012)

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Simply the most profound statement about British culture and history in the last decade in any medium. Yes, it was a stadium event and there is a “director’s cut” version, but it was broadcast worldwide by the BBC and that is enough to include it here. Even the usually tiresome parade of athletes was a joy.

 

15: Louie (FX, 2010-15)

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Louis CK revolutionised the situation comedy by including unrelated sequences, some of them almost sketches, in single episodes. The fluidity of both style and content comes across as a kind of stream-of-consciousness, or, indeed, the dramatisation of a stand-up routine – and it can be brutally to the point.

 

14: Wolf Hall (BBC, 2015)

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Peter Kosminsky’s fractured realisation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels re-invented and resuscitated the historical costume drama, with mesmerising performances from Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy. Can’t wait for the concluding part.

 

13: The Jinx (HBO, 2015)

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The greatest of the sub-genre of investigative true-crime documentary series, much imitated and parodied (by the brilliant American Vandal), Andrew Jarecki’s dramatic and headline-grabbing pursuit of the truth in the cases associated with Robert Durst entertained and intrigued from start to finish. My own theory is that Durst, a man whose extreme wealth must make his life something of a bore, is seeing how far he can go without being brought to justice.

 

12: Utopia (Channel 4, 2013-14)

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The only thing stopping Dennis Kelly’s Utopia being higher on my list is Channel 4’s shameful axing of the show after two remarkable and stylish (and very yellow) series, before it could be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The astonishing first episode of season two remains a stand-out moment in the television decade and a hint of what might have been.

 

11: Horace and Pete (Pig Newton, 2016)

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Louis CK’s second appearance on my list is an instant American classic in the tradition of Williams or Miller. An intimate and coruscating 6-part family drama, it was shot on a few sparse sets and released, unheralded, on the author’s own website. Great contributions from Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange and Edie Falco.

 

10: Brakeless (BBC/PBS/NHK, 2014)

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Pretty much the perfect documentary – a masterclass from Kyoko Miyake. Examining the causes and implications of a fatal Japanese train crash from all angles, including the historical, social, economic and cultural contexts and the human cost, it uses beautifully drawn animations to convey the horror of the crash. Everything is done full justice, yet the whole thing is completed in under an hour. Outstanding.

 

9: Inside No.9 (BBC, 2014-)

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Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have given us four tremendous seasons of their wonderful mystery/comedy/horror anthology, with scarcely a dud episode in sight but masses of highlights. The Twelve Days of Christine is probably the greatest half-hour of TV drama imaginable, but I also love The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge, Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Zanzibar, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room and, of course, the live Halloween special.

 

8: Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011-14/Netflix, 2016-)

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This is probably the most emblematic series of the decade, not just because it spans the whole decade, or because it deals with the social, political and personal implications of the newest technologies, or because it represents the shift in power from broadcasters to streaming platforms (by moving from Channel 4 to Netflix), or because it is the product of the genius mind of Charlie Brooker, one of the most perceptive commentators of our times, but for all these reasons together. Oh, and it is brilliantly performed, directed and produced, too.

 

7: The Vietnam War (PBS, 2017)

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Ken Burns’ monumental and meticulous examination of the American involvement in Vietnam was the greatest thing he has given us since The Civil War in 1990 (and he has given us many great things). Stretching over 18 riveting hours, nothing is superfluous (so don’t watch the 9-hour version – its only half as good) and everything is considered, illuminating and moving, perfectly complemented by Burns’ usual outstanding use of archive material.

 

6: Him & Her (BBC, 2010-13)

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Stefan Golaszewski’s minimalist masterpiece, each episode shot in real time in a single location (a bedsit for the first three seasons – a hotel for the concluding wedding special) but containing a universe of character and incident. At the calm centre, lovable layabouts Steve (Russell Tovey) and Becky (Sarah Solemani); revolving around them, a gallery of friends and family ranging from the inept to the hateful. Hilarious, moving and totally engaging.

 

5: Mr Robot (Universal/Esmail Corp/Anonymous, 2015-19)

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Ostensibly a thriller set in the contemporary world of global digital control and anarchic hackers, it soon became clear that we couldn’t rely on the veracity of what we were seeing, which placed it even further ahead of our times as it proceeded and allowed creator Sam Esmail to produce some startling dramatic shifts, such as the episode in which the characters found themselves in their own traditional sitcom. By the end we, the audience, were implicated in the uncertainty and simply had to sit back and enjoy the wildly entertaining ride.

 

4: Les Revenants (The Returned) (Haut en Court, 2012-16)

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The inhabitants of a small French Alpine town face the religious, philosophical and, above all, personal consequences when a group of children, long thought dead, return to resume their lives. This supernatural premise opens the door to a magnificent meditation on life, death, grief, and the clash between logic and emotion, as well as providing the basis for intriguing mystery and community-based drama, all accompanied by a terrific and atmospheric score by Mogwai.

 

3: Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime, 2017)

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In the early 90s, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks redefined what a TV drama series could be. In 2017, they did the same again with an 18-part epic which Lynch described as a single film cut up into hour-long segments. It was as surreal and mysterious as you would expect and then some – episode 8 will long remain as one of the most remarkable (and beautiful) things ever to grace a TV screen. The whole experience was something to immerse yourself in, without the need to seek explanations.

 

2: The Shadow Line (BBC, 2011)

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A staggeringly assured drama series debut from writer/director Hugo Blick, previously best known for comedy series. His subsequent series The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising confirmed him as the greatest auteur working in British television, but neither of those excellent pieces quite reached the heights of this wonderfully stylish and characterised thriller, which explored themes of good and evil, honour and betrayal amongst both legal and criminal networks. Great cast, stunning set pieces and, in the character of Gatehouse, a memorably malevolent presence.

 

1: The Leftovers (HBO, 2014-17)

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Like Les Revenants, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta’s The Leftovers uses a supernatural premise (the sudden unexplained disappearance of 2% of the world’s population) to explore the big philosophical and personal themes. The brilliantly conceived and performed central characters all undertake their own journeys towards their own reconciliation with the fallout from the event and it is where those journeys intersect that the drama lies. Is there a final explanation? Some think so – I don’t. Is it a religious piece?  Some think so – I don’t. It seems to be loved by both believers and atheists like me. The ending is perfect and moving , however you take it. Great writing, direction and acting (Carrie Coon, Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston among many) throughout and a really memorable score from Max Richter.

 

 

Twelve of these titles won Peabody Awards (and others may yet) – five of them in the 2015 roster – what a year that was!

 

It seems to me that my top 5 picks (and several of the others) explore themes related to the search for meaning (or something to believe in) in a meaningless and bewildering world. Whether this reflects a preoccupation of the decade or just my own personal preferences, I don’t know – you tell me!

An Unbalanced Year

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Well, it was a wonderful TV year overall, that’s for sure, but, as I speculated in my blog of 17th July (A Year of Two Halves?), the second six months could not hope to compete with the astonishing quality of the first. January to June produced fifteen titles for my shortlist, but I have only so far added a further two in the months since, both of them from streaming platforms (and both Netflix), which seem to release their best stuff in the run up to Christmas. Maybe the broadcasters have decided not to compete with this strategy, preferring instead to fill their schedules with an over-abundance of Reality TV at this time of the year.

 

Anyway, I can certainly add a third more recent title, with another streaming service (Amazon this time) having only just finished giving us one of the unmissable gems of the year – the final season of Sam Esmail’s Mr Robot. This has been a consistently wonderful series and received the concluding season and finale it deserved. I was particularly struck by Esmail’s use of a device very similar to that which illuminated the year’s 310A3523-8C83-47F0-A7E5-B3062E3AC46F_4_5005_cearliest masterpiece, Fleabag – whereby the central character’s fourth-wall-breaking habits (Fleabag’s looks to camera, Elliot’s narration) are challenged by another character (Fleabag’s love interest and Elliot’s doppelganger respectively) to unsettling effect. Indeed, the finale of Mr Robot was all about making us, the audience, complicit in the action. “Is this real” was the question constantly being asked by both the characters and ourselves and the only reliable answer must be “of course not – it’s a TV series”. At the end it didn’t matter how much of what we had seen had been a construct of Eliot’s mind, because it was wildly entertaining and engaging – just as a great TV series should be. I liked the nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, too. Not just one of the year’s best, but one of the decade’s (and I’ll be back to that).

 

So, I have ended up with a top 18 this year, from which I have chosen the following top ten of 2019 (as usual, in rough order of their appearance and you will notice that 8 of them are from the first half of the year):

 

 

Fleabag (BBC1)

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Just the two series and it’s all over, but the true genius knows when to call it a day and it went out on the highest of highs.

 

Janet Baker in Her Own Words (BBC4)

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John Bridcut’s fitting and moving tribute to one of this country’s greatest and most distinctive singing voices

 

One Day in Gaza (BBC2)

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A brilliantly constructed and presented documentary on a subject that is very raw and controversial – so much so that it is still to be seen in the USA, where it was jointly commissioned.

 

Mum (BBC2)

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Another perfect piece which paced itself carefully towards a satisfying and emotional climax in its third series.

 

63 Up (ITV)

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Hard to accept that this may be the last time we meet the characters whose lives we have followed since they were seven. Keep going, Michael Apted – we need them back in 2026.

 

Chernobyl (HBO/Sky Atlantic)

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Hugely impressive, riveting and illuminating telling of the story of a nuclear disaster which could have been an international catastrophe.

 

Deadwood; the Movie (HBO/Sky Atlantic)

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We thought this would be one of the great unfinished series, but David Milch managed to provide the perfect finale just in time.

 

The Virtues (Channel 4)

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Searing and mesmerising three-parter from Meadows, Thorne and Graham – the most intense television of the year.

 

Top Boy (Netflix)

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A very welcome return for Ronan Bennett’s’ urban epic, this time given the space to grow into something even more arresting

 

Mr Robot (Amazon)

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The astonishing and satisfying final season of one of the decade’s greatest

 

Happy New Year everybody! I’ll be back early in the new one with my list of the best of the decade.

 

Season of Surprises and Disappointments

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Without wanting to come over all Forrest Gump, I’d like to start with a bit of homespun wisdom; it struck me while wrapping presents and putting them under the tree, that TV series are very like Christmas presents. It’s not that “you never know what you are going to get” – far too often that is perfectly clear in advance – but that some of them will be surprises and others will be disappointments. And sometimes they will be both, because it is both a surprise and a disappointment when something you eagerly anticipate from a much-loved source turns out not really to be what you had hoped for. Recent weeks have given us gifts from Damon Lindelof, Ken Burns and Sir David Attenborough which have not lived up to the extremely high hopes those names engender in me, though there have also been one or two pleasant surprises to celebrate as well.

 

Since he gave us my favourite series of the closing decade – The Leftovers – I was obviously going to look forward to Damon Lindelof’s next project very keenly. Given the extreme quality threshold he had set, disappointment was probably inevitable, but even 2288F4F1-4DBB-4FD7-82BD-7AFB9D6AE2FF_4_5005_cthen I didn’t expect to be giving up after the customary 5 episodes I usually give to something which has clear pedigree and promise and which has received a positive welcome from sources I respect (as well as the wider critical community), but which just did not work for me. Watchmen (HBO/Sky Atlantic) suffers from the same problems I identified previously with The Handmaid’s Tale: it is so much in love with its own central concept and the visual realisation of that concept that it neglects the fundamental building blocks of plot and character development – something you can get away with in cinema, but not in an extended series. This may be because the original source material is, quite literally, two-dimensional, but the screenwriters, directors and actors are there to adapt that material for TV presentation and obviously have the skills to do so. However, the writers and directors of Watchmen seem too keen on the visuals and on drawing clever parallels with aspects of our troubled times, while the performers are hamstrung by having to wear masks for much of the time – precisely the reasons, I think, why we have recently heard criticism of superhero movies from masters like Scorsese and Coppola.

 

Of course, genres like fantasy and science fiction are just as capable of illuminating the human condition as social realism – in many respects, even more so. A good example of a current series which achieves this is His Dark Materials (BBC1, Sundays). Adapted from 3714032B-9950-4A52-966F-B57750C977C5_4_5005_cPhilip Pulman’s novels by the prolific and excellent Jack Thorne (and what a year he has had with The Virtues, The Accident and now this), it contains epic effects, talking animals and mystical themes, yet its characters are all-too-human. It also has one of the most arresting title sequences since The Night Manager. And it reminded me, in many aspects, of Netflix’s Stranger Things, not least the remarkable similarity in both looks and performance between Dafne Keen and Millie Bobby Brown.

 

Following His Dark Materials on BBC1 on three recent Sundays was a new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and this provided a genuine surprise, because this is a novel which has been adapted so many times in the past, but this version managed a 53AABEA5-8103-45C4-A320-BC7A22077D79_4_5005_ccompletely new take on the overly familiar material. It achieved its effect primarily through an impressive visual imagining of a devastated Edwardian landscape and, as it only ran to three hour-long parts, the makers were able to strike a perfect balance between the human story and the visualisation.

 

Turning to factual material, Ken Burns is another name that creates great anticipation when it appears in the listings. His series are mammoth undertakings and his approach to his subjects is meticulous, so there is often a lengthy gap between their appearance. Over a long career, he has documented multiple aspects of American history – some series have been greater landmarks than others so, following the stupendous The Vietnam War two years ago, his next series was always likely to be a let-down. From the start of Country Music (PBS/BBC4) you know you are in familiar Burns territory – the B9EB1D05-F1BA-4504-8824-DF221343154E_4_5005_cbeautifully scanned black and white photographs, the authoritative voice of Peter Coyote. But the longer it went on, the more I got the feeling that this was not the best choice of subject for such lengthy treatment. Compared to Jazz (PBS, 2001), there just wasn’t the depth of interest to be explored. Country Music also seemed to promise at the start of each episode that it would be tracing a link between the music and American social history (as Jazz had done so well), but most of what we got was just the lives and careers of the stars. As before with a Burns series, the BBC is giving us the cut down (9 hours!) version – I have usually sought out the full version (18 hours in this case) but will not be bothering this time. Maybe my problem is that it is not a style of music which interests me greatly, but I do normally expect more from Burns.

 

I also expect a lot from any series or single documentary fronted by Sir David Attenborough, and there have been a lot of them this year. There was the magnificent 28D5BF6C-4B68-4E53-BEEB-38AA5C120EF8_4_5005_cNetflix series Our Planet, which gave us not just spectacular sequences, but also ecological comment. Then there was Attenborough’s personal single doc on climate change for the BBC. So, Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC1) was simply a re-hash of what we had already had and many sequences were overly familiar – not just the penguins and albatross searching for their chicks or the co-ordinated dancing birds, but even the walruses falling off cliffs which we had already seen earlier in the year. And the material on climate change became less prominent as the series progressed and seemed to have been added almost as an afterthought.

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John Pilger is another veteran film maker whose work is consistent and you know exactly what to expect, though the fact that he makes his pieces at feature length means that they are sometimes a little stretched. No such fault with The Dirty War on the NHS (ITV), a brilliantly argued, thorough and rather depressing analysis of the dire threats to our health system which spoke directly to many of the issues crucial in the election campaign, though transmitted (inevitably, given the author’s well-known political leaning) too late to make any difference. Not that it would have, sadly.

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Having promised you less humbug this time, I fear I may have failed in that mission, so let me conclude this theme on a more positive note. I knew exactly what to expect from Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out, just concluded its second season on BBC4, yet the pair constantly manage to surprise and delight with exactly the same sort of material they began their TV careers with. Backwards Bill’s tribute to the elephant on Novelty Island had me completely convulsed with laughter.

 

Maybe overly high hopes are the main problem, as they make it easy to be let down – bear that in mind as you both open your presents and watch TV this Christmas, I’ll be back with my 2019 top ten before the year ends (and what a fantastic year it has been, though definitely one of two halves) and I will give you my list of the best of the past decade at the start of the new one.

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A very Happy Christmas to one and all.

Sh*tbox

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In a blog a couple of years ago (Trouble in Store, 4th November 2017) I bemoaned the demise of the BBC Store and the loss of the opportunity to “own” some important archival titles that need to be available, but which were actually snatched back from those of us who had purchased them when it folded. At the time, I quoted the BBC as saying: “the BBC is currently exploring ways by which archive programmes can be viewed” and “we do hope to make the programmes you could only get on BBC Store available elsewhere at some point in the future”. Well, here’s the latest news – Britbox isn’t it!

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Actually, I’m not really sure what Britbox is meant to be at all, and I’m not convinced that the BBC or ITV are either – I suspect it is more about what it may become. As it stands, it is a rather feeble attempt by our two largest domestic broadcasters to enter the streaming market, which is not their natural home, using material which is pretty much all available on home video formats (and which anybody with a serious interest will D4D2F6A8-A5A0-4781-A6A0-9DD9D4E507C8_4_5005_calready own). The oldest titles are from the seventies, but there aren’t many of them and they are the usual suspects (Fawlty Towers etc). Most of the material is much more recent. Rather bizarrely, if you click on “search by decade”, you find much more material set in the sixties and seventies (like Cilla or Life on Mars) than made in those decades.

 

There is nothing in monochrome (though early Doctor Who has been promised as a future feature), no plays by Dennis Potter (a key feature of BBC Store when it was FDC820C3-23E1-4A35-8690-465EF0A7D7AD_4_5005_claunched and a particular lure to myself) and very little factual material of any great interest. It looks as if it has been thrown together in a hurry and sent before its time into the world. It may (just) make sense if it was available to the whole world (much as Netflix was attractive for its archive of American TV before it became a powerhouse of original production), but it isn’t – you have to be located in the UK to access it, though a US version has been available in North America for a couple of years. There has been very little in the way of marketing for Britbox on the BBC or ITV – maybe when Channel 4 joins in next Spring there will be a re-launch, though I doubt they will bring much more to the table.

 

The only immediate function it may come to fulfil, I fear, is to replace the broadcasters’ home video release operations, much as BBC Store seemed intended to do. Those who wish to have continuing access to the best current releases (beyond their catch-up windows) would thus have to pay an ongoing subscription for what they would previously have paid a one-off fee to have securely on their shelf, rather than depending on its continued availability online. And this would not be a new development, alas. Much has been said and written about the effect of Netflix’s move into cinematic production and its impact on the theatrical release of important works, most recently Scorsese’s magnificent The Irishman, which I enjoyed streaming just the other day. B1C6122B-9606-4B61-A498-84FD53BCA941_4_5005_cHowever, although this is an understandable concern, I am much more bothered about the absence of key titles from my DVD and blu-ray shelves than from the cinema, which is another, but less remarked, effect of Netflix’s exclusivity policies. My complete collection of Coen brothers films is incomplete without The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and my Scorsese collection would be similarly so without The Irishman. A glimmer of hope is offered by the welcome recent announcement of a special Criterion edition of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma in the new year, so maybe it will become a case of waiting and hoping that the niche collector’s market delivers the desired titles.

 

And maybe Britbox will be a waiting game, too. Perhaps it will expand its offer to include more archival classics, though that would still be no replacement for really “owning” the stuff. I’m certainly not prepared to maintain a subscription “just in case”, and even then I would have severe reservations about it. Only if it becomes the only way to access recent outstanding titles would I even think about it.

 

Of course, rights clearances and the associated costs and charges will be the ultimate factor. The rights to a lot of BBC and ITV material are already tied up by other streaming platforms, but will revert to BBC and ITV in time, in which case Britbox may look a better proposition. If it did become a success, then maybe the plan would be to clear those rights for full overseas access if the economic model was right, and then it may be a genuine competitor with Netflix, Disney, Amazon and the rest, but it is very hard to see that happening.

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In the longer term, it’s existence may be linked to the future funding model and shape of the BBC and maybe even ITV, which has historically relied on a licence-funded BBC to protect its own sources of revenue. You can’t help but get the feeling that it is a desperate leap in the dark in the face of a highly uncertain future for both of them.

 

Finally, I should apologise for the slightly scatological title to this blog but, try as I did, I couldn’t come up with anything better. Actually, I really dislike the use of the term “box” to refer to television – it is dismissive and now outdated – and also the use of the term “box set” on streaming platforms which are actually denying us the possibility of getting some of the titles in a real box, so I’m not really sorry at all for the title. I am, however, for the generally “humbug” attitude of what I have written this time around. I promise to be more seasonally festive in the coming weeks (or, at least, to try).

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Words can speak louder than actions

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A few months back, I posted a blog in which I argued the merits of telling a story visually rather than verbally (Better Left Unsaid, 31st May) using examples of some recently transmitted programmes. Without in any way invalidating those arguments, a number of recent new series have prompted me to examine the other side of the same coin: effective drama and dramatic comedies which prioritise dialogue over visuals. Of course, for these to work well they still require subtle visual flair and directorial quality and they, too, need to avoid expository dialogue as much as possible.

 

To start with the two most obviously “wordy” series: State of the Union (BBC2/BBC i-Player) was a series of 10 ten-minute two-handers, always set in the same pub as the two protagonists (played by Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd) met up in advance of their regular weekly marriage counselling sessions. The credits for such a modest scenario were pretty striking – as well as the two excellent actors, the scripts were by Nick Hornby and the direction by Stephen Frears – which is why it worked so well. It was very muchEE02E85E-4545-4618-8C76-2071C72E23D1_4_5005_c in the tradition of pieces like Hugo Blick and Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff (BBC: 2000-2003) or Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads (BBC: 1988, 1998). The details of the characters’ lives emerged gradually and as much by implication as by direct statement. This requires clever writing, great acting skills and subtle direction – Frears highlighted the more serious moments with the minutest of camera movements. Another outstanding two-hander, Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981), is a valuable reference-point. Each episode included the week number (Week 1, Week 2 etc) in its title, so I watched them a week apart, not in twos, as they were transmitted, or by bingeing the whole 100 minutes on i-Player, as I’m sure many did, and I somehow think that was right. I imagine it will be back for another season and could well run and run.

 

Criminal (Netflix) has a larger cast but also a single set, in this case a police interrogation room, the adjoining surveillance room and the lift area/stairwell outside. It also has an interesting concept. There are four brief series, each made by a different country (UK, France, Spain and Germany) and each series (of 3) has a group of actors playing the police team across the three episodes and guest stars (like David Tennant) BC23E253-1B92-4056-BD86-AAB116598E9B_4_5005_cplaying the “criminals” being interrogated in each episode. Each investigation is a separate story, but there is a story arc across the three episodes involving the police characters. Unfortunately, the lack of back-story context or characterisation in the criminal stories is a hindrance, so there is no great tension in the interrogation scenes, compared to Line of Duty (or even 24 Hours in Police Custody). I haven’t watched every national version, so one of them may have cracked the format, but on the evidence I have seen (the UK and German series), I doubt it.

 

Far better are two more traditional dramas, both also dealing with crime and police procedures, which most certainly rely on scenes of interview and interrogation rather than action. Season two of David Fincher’s Mindhunter (Netflix) built well on the excellent first series and continued to rely for its effectiveness mainly on the tense “interview” scenes in which imprisoned serial killers (based on real-life murderers and including, this season, Charles Manson) are questioned by the specialist FBI officers, trying to find psychological insights to help solve ongoing crimes (also based on real 4F0B7584-8C73-4117-A13F-FCFDBEA3F473_4_5005_cexamples – most prominently in this season, the Atlanta child murders). What is discussed is grisly in the extreme and comes across far more shockingly for being dispassionately spoken about than it would do if recreated for the drama. The private lives of Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) impact strongly on the narrative and the way the characters’ private experiences are shown to inform their innovative behavioural research (and vice versa) reminded me of a previous series: Masters of Sex (Showtime, 2013-16).

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ITV’s A Confession similarly located all its dramatic impetus in its dialogue, which was appropriate given that it was about what was and was not admissible as evidence and how following police procedures to the letter would not have achieved results. In this regard it was very similar to another ITV real-life police drama from earlier in the year: Manhunt. In the earlier piece, it was Martin Clunes playing the career copper who risked his position to follow his instinct. This time it is Martin Freeman, playing pretty much the same role – the Martins could have been interchangeable! It was an engaging, understated drama which kept the attention without setting the world on fire.

 

All of which, I guess, goes to show that you don’t necessarily need action sequences to produce an engaging drama, but the greatest pieces are likely to be those which find a balance between “action” and dialogue sequences, as long as the action is organic to the narrative and the dialogue is naturalistic rather than expository. Step forward, Top Boy 701B056B-9E87-4B3F-BA20-635122DC0391_4_5005_c(Netflix). Having provided Channel 4 with two outstanding 4-part series in 2011 and 2013, Ronan Bennett’s Top Boy was then inexplicably dropped. But now, thanks to interest (and finance) from the rapper Drake, it is back on Netflix with a new 10-part season and the promise of more to come – and this is very good news. And the fact that the series has been so greatly expanded allows for many more back stories and for reflection on the circumstances the characters find themselves in – all of it highly pertinent to the recent rise in street crime and the headlines it has made.

 

It also provides a large number of roles for an astonishing roster of young black British acting talent – some of the most impressive being the very youngest ones: Keiyon Cook and Araloyin Oshunremi outstanding as Ats and Stefan. Ashley Walters’ Dushane remains the main focus, though Kane Robinson as Sully and Micheal Ward as Jamie FA69D89B-999E-436F-B8BF-A349627F9CEB_4_5005_ccomplete a trio of riveting protagonists. Writing and direction are top-notch throughout, as is the music – both the original score by Brian Eno and the rap music which provides both impetus and comment. A key theme is the tension between the main characters’ involvement in drug wars and their attempts to engage in “normal” personal lives and look after family members, as well as the inevitable impact of the gang scene on the youngest members of the community. In this respect, it echoes The Godfather films in its epic scope.

 

We certainly need to be grateful to Drake for bringing about such a vital revival. I just wish that something similar would happen to another wonderful series abandoned by Channel 4 after two seasons and one of my very favourites of the past decade: Utopia.

 

Top Boy is a definite for my shortlist, and I will add Mindhunter to the list as well.

 

 

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.