A-B CDs

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Time to take a break from TV and talk about music. Actually, circumstances dictate this – at the same time as TV has started to run out of new product, my own fallback of revisiting the past through my DVD/Blu-ray collection has been disrupted by the need for regular 100 mile drives to the Sussex coast to care for my elderly mother, while my (even more) elderly father has been in hospital following a bad fall. Visits to my father, which became possible as lockdown eased, called for further driving, and now that he is home they still require frequent visits.

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When I retired, I determined systematically to revisit both my extensive film/tv and music collections. The systems and methods would be different though. My film collection is arranged in a rough chronological order (though with national cinemas and the work of individual directors also factored in), so I would be starting with silent cinema and progressing through time. I clearly need to do this at home in front of my TV screen. My classical music CD collection, on the other hand, is arranged A-Z by composer, following the principles of the Gramophone catalogue (concertos/symphonies/chamber and instrumental/vocal and choral/opera) and I decided to tackle it in this order, which gives the opportunity to immerse myself in the works of each composer in turn and also throws up some serendipitous juxtapositions.

 

My method to date has been mainly to listen to my CDs while driving long(ish) distances by myself. I started when I got my current car, which came with a very good CD player and speaker system, in September 2017. A choice listening opportunity was my regular drive to watch Brentford home matches, which takes me about the length of time needed for one CD (so, two discs per match). The suspension of football in March put an end to that, while lockdown switched my attention to my film collection. But my latest circumstances have greatly increased my CD listening – so much so that I am now reaching the end of the Bs!

 

That may seem like slow progress, but a) I do have a lot of CDs; and b) so many major composers, including two of the biggest, have names beginning with B. But let’s go back a B13E1BE6-F2FA-4241-8E7B-8311FB64F0B8_4_5005_cletter to the start: John Adams is one of three living American composers whose works feature strongly in my collection (Glass and Reich being the others). Adams’ works are highly contemporary and witty, much like the man himself – I once saw him conduct a programme of Frank Zappa pieces at the Proms while carrying on a dialogue with the audience. He has cornered the market in operas and performance pieces based on events from recent history – Nixon in China is probably his masterpiece, but I particularly enjoyed re-visiting his 1995 piece about the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky. One of the best things about contemporary composers like Adams, Reich and Glass is that there is often only one recording of any particular work to choose from. As they are composers of the recording age, these can be regarded as definitive versions, though in the case of all three, newer recordings of some key works are emerging, which gives a hint as to which of them may become “classics”.

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The rest of my A section consists of just three discs of Albinoni concertos (mostly for oboe) and one disc each of Allegri and Arne. Albinoni’s Adagio is one of those works I can never hear without making an association with its use in TV or film – in this case Werner Herzog’s Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), in which it is played in full as the centrepiece of a symmetrical use of musical extracts.

 

And so on to all those B’s, starting with one of those “big ones”, J.S.Bach (I don’t have anything by J.C.Bach, who would have preceded him alphabetically, or even C.P.E. who2E92874F-AECC-4F3A-9530-6E02CD04A9D1_4_5005_c would be ahead of them both – mental note to rectify this!). I had about 6 months of Bach-accompanied driving, starting with the Brandenburgs at the beginning of a football season and culminating in his oratorios and masses in time for Easter. I think John Eliot Gardiner’s rendition of the B-minor Mass must be amongst my most treasured recordings and this is another point of the exercise – to identify those works and recordings I will want to revisit, ideally in live performance, and those I can probably put behind me. My Bach collection also contains a number of “traditional” performances, contrasted with those on period instruments. I tend to prefer the latter, especially when the performance history has been well researched by somebody like Gardiner or Herreweghe. The Brandenburg Concertos are a case in point, as I have two recordings, one by the Berlin Phil under Karajan and the other with the English Concert under Trevor Pinnock (both on DG). The Karajan is pompous and overblown, where the Pinnock sounds like the true voice of Bach. I know which one is now behind me.

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Speaking of Philippe Herreweghe (a great name to bring up when asked for a list of famous Belgians!), one of my best purchases of recent years was the 30-CD set of his 9418B215-C0C0-42FE-845D-F2CA200FE6AF_4_5005_cHarmonia Mundi recordings, which I got for under £30 when it came out (you’d pay much more now) and which greatly increased my Bach collection at a stroke. His performances and the recordings of them are outstanding. This is one of several such bargain boxes I have acquired – others are devoted to Rafael Kubelik at DG, Bernard Haitink (live Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra recordings) and Leonard Bernstein – which is another reason for my slow progress through the collection.

 

After an all-too-brief diversion with Bartok’s string quartets (Takacs Quartet on Hungaroton – can’t get much more authentically Hungarian than that!), it was on to the next big B – the glorious Ludwig van. This was another potential season-long fest, except it was the current, recently resumed season. The fact that I have so many multiple copies8FA37CB2-421A-4A4B-A434-4EE9FA9558C5_4_5005_c of Beethoven’s works, including three complete symphony cycles (by Karajan, Gardiner and in the aforementioned Kubelik set), plus three additional copies of the ninth (yes, I know!) meant that I had to space them out between the concertos, string quartets, piano sonatas usw.  Much the same goes for my all-time favourite choral work – the Missa Solemnis (four different versions, including in the Herreweghe and Haitink sets, but Gardiner’s remains my top preference, though Haitink runs him close). The period instrument question is also pertinent to Beethoven and there has been a lot of scholarly research behind the question of interpretation and tempi by the likes of Gardiner, Norrington and Harnoncourt. When Gardiner’s symphony cycle was released, I was knocked out – hearing such familiar works so completely newly and excitingly presented was a revelation. I remember a news item at the time that Gardiner’s aunt (or maybe it was his godmother) was caught speeding and in court gave as her (very reasonable) excuse that she was so excited by listening to this set: if ever anybody deserved to get off without a fine it was her (she didn’t). Listening to Gardiner’s Beethoven 9 also reminded me of one of my favourite Proms of recent years – when Gardiner made the string section of the orchestra perform the entire work standing up! I have a simple answer to anybody who doubts the value of period instrument performances – Beethoven (or whoever) knew what he was doing.

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Bach and Beethoven, of course, are widely regarded as two of the top three composers of all time, with Mozart as the other. So many lists of the greatest composers (which, like all lists are highly subjective, but good for a bit of fun) have those three at the top, though there is no real consensus about which of them is the number one (the only consistent thing seems to be that Wagner is usually fourth – at least he gets a Champions League spot!). For me, whatever the list is about, there is regularly a difference between my personal favourite and what I think is probably correct. In this case and having just immersed myself in the works of two of these geniuses, I would say Bach gets the nod, but I love Beethoven more. I do, though, have other greater personal favourites yet to come.

 

I’ve just one work by each of Bellini and Berlioz (and don’t really want any more!) but Bernstein’s output is marvellously diverse and, having invested in a splendid set of his 13AC88B2-FE53-4C44-A517-43B7D99316F4_4_5005_cworks on Sony, I was able to appreciate his versatility and enjoy pieces I had not previously encountered, such as the Mass of Life. I was also able to contrast three versions of his masterpiece, West Side Story – theatrical (original Broadway cast), cinematic (movie soundtrack) and operatic (which I cannot listen to without seeing Humphrey Burton’s wonderful Omnibus documentary about its making in my mind’s eye).

 

There was still some way to go in my B section, though – it has a very long tail. Biber and Boccherini provided a nice diversion before a number of late 19th century hacks took over. First Borodin, then Brahms – I must say I was tempted on many occasions to use one of my favourite lines from Ken Russell films: “piss off Brahms!” (Lisztomania), because he really is, one work excepted, a monumental bore. I’m not really sure what I 8818914C-599F-4A20-B60B-33033529CEB0_4_5005_cever got out of his concertos and symphonies. The 2nd Symphony has some nice things, but it seems to me that the movements of his symphonies are pretty much interchangeable – none of the four has any real identity. But that one exceptional work makes his whole career worthwhile! I have three copies of the German Requiem and never thought I would listen to anybody’s version other than Gardiner’s on DG until I got my Herreweghe Harmonia Mundi set. Truth be told, there is little between them, but Herreweghe’s sheer attack in “Denn wir haben…” gives him the edge.

 

Benjamin Britten provided some nicely appropriate music for driving through the Sussex countryside – especially the folk song arrangements performed with Peter Pears on Decca and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings – but then it was back to the hacks. I only have one disc of Max Bruch and you actually only need one: the Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy. It sounds to me that Bruch wrote a better Brahms Violin Concerto than the one Brahms himself wrote.

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But then, going back to the idea of putting things behind me, we come to Anton Bruckner. Obviously, my taste must have developed and changed over the years, but I now find his symphonies bombastic, repetitive and overlong (in a way that Mahler’s, which are longer, are not). I may go back to the eighth, especially in Jochum’s (comparatively) brisk 1964 recording with the Berlin Phil on DG, but basically life isn’t short enough (as Stan Laurel once put it) to waste precious time on Bruckner symphonies any longer.

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Gavin Bryars’ works are also long and highly repetitive but utterly hypnotic, though not 16262333-C02C-4B21-AF5D-00274A7910C0_4_5005_cthe best things to listen to while driving – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (in the 70 minute version with Tom Waits) basically repeats the same brief recording of a tramp singing a simple hymn over and over again, while Bryars weaves a wonderfully affecting accompaniment around it throughout and Waits improvises his own at the end. The Sinking of the Titanic is of similar length and approach, though with more variation and density.

 

The end of the long B tail threw up a lovely juxtaposition of (mostly) choral works from either end of the 17thcentury – from Buxtehude and Byrd. My Buxtehude collection also contained some sonatas from Musica Antiqua Koln on a disc also featuring chamber works by Pachelbel, including the famous Canon and Gigue, which again transported me back to the musical symmetry of Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser, where it is played over a field of waving grass just after the beginning and Kaspar’s vision of death just before the end.

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My listening hasn’t been all classical on my drives though – I’m not a great buyer of contemporary popular music, but new albums by long-time favourites Bob Dylan and Sparks are must-haves and both have released one in the last month. Mind you, Dylan and the Maels have been going as long, if not longer, than John Adams or Gavin Bryars, so the catagorisation is a bit meaningless – it’s all great music. Both Dylan and Sparks have produced large and consistently outstanding (mostly) bodies of work over their lengthy careers. Rough and Rowdy Ways is a revelation from Dylan – I don’t need to add to the glowing reviews: it is simply staggering that he can still come up with something which enhances his catalogue so significantly. A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip however, is not such classic Sparks as Hippopotamus was. You immediately know you are looking at a Sparks album when you see titles like Self-Effacing, Onomato Pia and Stravinsky’s Only Hit on the track list, but only a handful of the tracks hit home (musically at least – lyrically they are as weird and wonderful as ever), most notably the anthemic love song (rare in the Sparks canon) All That, which opens the album. Still, we have a major Edgar Wright documentary and a musical film to look forward to from them in the near future.

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Time to get back in the car, with some Charpentier to look forward to. I’m into C already.

 

The New and the Normal

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You’d have thought that lockdown would have given me plenty of opportunity to write more blogs, but it is well over a month since my last – not because I have not found plenty to think about, but because I have needed to wait for an appropriate moment to reflect on the current TV landscape and to complete viewing a few series which are vying for places on my (now) increasing shortlist, as well as to consider some of the more remarkable results of production under the restrictions of social distancing. So, there’s a lot to catch up on.

 

Clearly, there were plenty of series already made before the imposition of restrictions which have been released recently, though the broadcasters are wisely spreading them more thinly than usual to make them last until production can return to something approaching normality. These are “normal” programmes (the first of three categories to consider) and where better to start with them than the biggest hit of the last weeks, the appropriately titled Normal People (BBC3 on BBC1).

 

I actually watched it on BBC1 because I wanted to experience the episodes as a regularly transmitted weekly treat, rather than devour them all at once. This was a good choice, because Normal People actually came across as something of a throwback rather than a modern piece of drama. Its virtues were traditional – a gently unfolding love story; AB746487-41AD-4CC8-AC8C-A4E439842943_4_5005_cbrilliantly acted and directed; dialogue which seemed highly conventional rather than being idiomatic of “today’s young people”; lovingly photographed Irish rural landscapes and Dublin vistas. It also allowed a chance to compare the styles of the two excellent directors who realised it – Lenny Abrahamson for the first six episodes and Hettie Macdonald for the remaining six. Would it be a case of the male vs the female gaze? Abrahamson’s approach seemed the more restrained – the pace was slower and the characters artfully framed, with Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) shot in softer focus and often backlit, to emphasise her fragility, while Connell (Paul Mescal) was regularly lit from the side to emphasise his strong features. Macdonald’s episodes were stronger on the key scenes and moved the plot more briskly (she is a veteran of Doctor Who). Of course, this difference was almost certainly down to the content of the episodes, as plot developments came more regularly later in the series, as well as some important location shifts, including Italy and Sweden. However, the fact that two of the MacDonald episodes came in at 25 minutes, while the rest were 30, would seem to bear out my observation, at least in part.

 

Anyway, the whole thing was totally enthralling and enjoyable throughout and would have been a must for my shortlist even in a normal year.

 

Last year, I noted in my blog of April 9th how much I had enjoyed the first season of Ricky Gervais’ After Life (Netflix) but reluctantly declined to shortlist it on the grounds that I felt it was not something which had particularly extended Gervais’ considerable 1DCD5D3D-3B50-4C23-9C33-E87164BEE854_4_5005_ccapabilities. I have no such qualms about the second season, which is in much the same vein, but which now looks like a fully settled sitcom. Characters who had existed mainly in the background of the narrative (and are played by some outstanding performers) were given greater weight this time around, so that it felt more like an ensemble piece. The melancholy feel was still there, but there were considerably more laughs – some sequences, most notably the climactic talent show, had me in tears of laughter. Paul Kaye’s psychiatrist was revealed as a distant cousin of The Office’s Finchy, while Ethan Lawrence as James is clearly the new James Corden (as if we needed one). I’m really pleased to add it to the shortlist.

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Also returning for a second series was one of my favourites of 2018: Homecoming (Amazon) continued the story of the first season, though without Julia Roberts. The structure was similar – a main character (Janelle Monae) who has forgotten her role in the Geist projects and spends the series trying to figure it out. It also continued the tradition of having a single directorial vision: this time Kyle Patrick Alvarez, taking over from Sam Esmail and doing a good solid job, though not quite as spectacularly. It was certainly a worthy successor to the brilliant first season, though not quite up to the same standard and, according to my usual practice in such circumstances, not one for the shortlist.

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The main attraction of Run (Sky Atlantic) was its connection to Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It was created by her regular collaborator, Vicky Jones, and Waller-Bridge appears in a supporting acting role, as well as being Executive Producer. The premise is clever, the lead performers excellent and the pace frantic. There are a number of great plot twists and at times it comes across as a bit like a mini-Fargo, especially when a quirky female cop character is introduced. The ending was a disappointment in a Killing Eve sort of way, because it is so clearly set up for a second season, without being as conclusive or as satisfactory as the twisting plot required. I enjoyed it, but don’t think I’ll be back for more.

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Currently, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (BBC1, BBC i-Player) is looking like it may turn out to be something of real significance, but I am watching it as it is transmitted, so will return to it in a later blog. Meanwhile, The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC1) crept in under the wire – it was apparently shot before lockdown but edited and post produced under social distancing conditions. It is solidly made and performed and has a suitable gravitas, as well as a relevance to the pandemic, but there is not a great deal more to it than a dramatisation of the events of the time. If Run is a mini-Fargo, then The Salisbury Poisonings is a micro-Chernobyl.

 

As broadcasters have run short of new production, two new styles have emerged: existing programmes adapting to lockdown conditions (“normal” programmes done in a “new” way) and “new” forms of drama and comedy, made under lockdown conditions, the emergence of which I speculated on in my last blog.

 

To briefly consider the normal programmes, newly made: two entertainment programmes particularly rose to the challenge and actually improved a lot as they got used to the new production methods: Have I Got News for You (BBC1) seemed a bit lost A2CD8A80-C184-479F-9CEE-6A8D681AB666_4_5005_cwithout its studio audience at first, but as it adapted, the standard of the humour rose. I have always contended that the true sign of whether something is funny is when you experience it without anybody else laughing and thus prompting your own laughter, and HIGNFY made me laugh out loud many times during its recent socially-distanced run – in particular, Paul Merton’s dry asides were more easily audible than usual. Later, on Friday evenings, The Graham Norton Show (BBC1) proved that it is Norton’s interviewing skills, rather than the interaction of his guests, which is the real secret of the show’s success. But my favourite adapted show of the lockdown has to be Match of the Day : Top 10 (BBC1). At first it seemed like a poor substitute for the real thing for we football-starved fans, but it developed into something very special in its own right. The wonderful rapport between Lineker, Wright and Shearer, even though contributing from their own homes, produced many brilliant moments and the unguarded candour of their conversations was a revelation. Ian Wright in particular was on great form throughout. It may have started as a podcast but seeing the three of them interacting so brilliantly made it great TV.

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And in the last few weeks, “new” dramas and comedies have begun to emerge, made under lockdown restrictions. The best of them was also the first to appear. Isolation 94578930-2433-407F-8081-4668064C918C_4_5005_cStories (ITV) was shot in the homes of the actors involved, sometimes with members of the same acting families playing related characters (Robert and Tom Glenister as a father and son) or with family members acting as directors and camera operators under remote professional instruction (Eddie Marsan’s wife Janine – in real life a make-up artist). The fact that all four 15-minute dramas worked so well as drama, while at the same time illuminating aspects of lockdown, is mainly down to writer Jeff Pope, whose idea it was. It was certainly an innovative way of making drama, not least because so many union rules must have been broken. The practicalities of making the series were discussed in this BFI panel – normally, such a thing would have taken place onstage at BFI Southbank but is here necessarily and appropriately virtual:

 

 

The episodes of Isolation Stories struck me as being rather like mini-Inside No 9s – they used the same single location format, some of the themes were similar and there was the presence of Sheridan Smith. Now, if only Pemberton and Shearsmith were working on a No 9 lockdown special! Maybe they are, but in the meantime, Isolation Stories makes the shortlist for producing such good episodes in such difficult circumstances.

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The BBC’s response, Unprecedented, also did a good job in the circumstances, though with less ambition. The episodes were of similar length but opted for mainly presenting the drama through computer screens and that is not even a new approach (the Stephen 368C41F9-2AE9-4BCE-A06A-DE3CDF8E5A26_4_5005_cMangan series Hang-Ups did much the same a couple of years ago). Also, there was a more didactic and drama-doc feel about the series: the writers were often making points about the crisis rather than using it as a backdrop for the drama – a worthwhile thing to do, for sure, but not as satisfying as the real drama of Isolation Stories, from which similar points emerged without feeling forced.

 

Most recently, Staged (BBC1, i-Player) joined the ranks of the computer-screen genre and, though clearly set in lockdown, attempts to generate both character and comedy from the situation. Michael Sheen and David Tennant are playing themselves attempting to rehearse their postponed play in virtual space. Their banter is reminiscent of that between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip, but I’m not going to call It a mini-Trip (I’ve used that device enough in this blog) because it just doesn’t have the locations. It’s diverting enough, so far, and may develop into something more.

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More comedy was to be found in Comedians at Home Alone (BBC2) which allowed some well-known comedians to contribute brief self-recorded segments from their homes. It was a good idea but, inevitably, the standard was uneven.

 

So far, most of the “new” forms I have seen have been “about” the lockdown rather than ordinary dramas or comedies, though the imminent re-makes of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads will break that trend, but judging from the trailers, they will be much as the original versions, so nothing “new” there – just a great idea for the times. But if no really new forms have yet emerged, one point is still worth noting: all the programmes I have listed above were of 15 minutes’ duration. Will the most lasting effect of production under lockdown be that there will be more shorter programmes, or will things just revert to normal when it is “all over”? We shall see.

 

With less and less original production available, I have, of course, turned to my DVD and Blu-ray collection more and more of late. And I have finally taken the plunge and begun the marathon of watching The Sopranos from beginning to end. That will, no doubt, inform a future TV Catch-up blog. It’s going to take some time, but I have plenty at the moment.

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Tales from the Loft

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Having had to self-isolate in my converted attic for a few weeks, my TV viewing has been mainly conducted through streaming services, via my i-Mac (with 5-speaker sound system). Perfect conditions to catch up with things – if only there was something new worth watching? In my last blog I was bemoaning the fact that I had only managed to find two things for my year’s shortlist in the first quarter of the year – and with production effectively halted, which will have a knock-on effect later in the year, it was looking as though I may even struggle to complete a top ten at all.

 

But then, along comes a bona fide masterpiece, seemingly out of nowhere, to lift the gloom and restore faith. Tales from the Loop (Amazon) is difficult to describe in genre terms – I guess I would call it a slow, meditative retro sci-fi linked anthology. It has antecedents but it is not necessarily helpful to invoke them, though I will, simply in order to give reference points. The small town with a mysterious research institute, plus the retro setting and focus on children and teenagers will inevitably invite comparison with Stranger Things (Netflix), but there the comparison ends. The moral and philosophical questions raised by the unexpected effects of strange technologies recalls Black Mirror (Netflix). The general atmosphere of loss and regret and the meditative musicality reminded me in parts of my great favourite The Leftovers (HBO).

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But it is very much its own highly distinctive thing, which is what makes it so great. It is based on books by the Swedish painter Simon Stalenhag, but the paintings are merely 095479A2-8336-4635-92D7-B94B0716E8C3_4_5005_cstarting points and the stories, characters and setting are, as far as I can see, all down to writer/creator Nathaniel Halpern. Halpern has the great gift of being able to establish a character in a minimal time frame (much as Jimmy McGovern does in The Street and Accused) and this is vital to the structure of the series, which consists of 8 episodes, each of which tells a separate story, though they are linked by the location, the relationships of the characters and the presence of The Loop (the research facility built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe). Characters glimpsed briefly in early episodes return at the centre of their own stories as the series proceeds. The characters who return most often are The Loop’s founder, Russ (Jonathan Pryce), his daughter-in-law Loretta (Rebecca Hall), who takes his position later in the series and her young son Cole (Duncan Joiner), through whose eyes much of the mystery is seen.

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Most of the episodes ask a question – what if you met your younger/older self?; what if you could swap bodies with a friend?; what if you could freeze time for everybody except yourself? – and explore the consequences of the characters’ reactions in full detail. It is the presentation of the stories which really counts, though. The pacing is very 0F65F866-BB40-4538-BB06-233F8DB1FB47_4_5005_cslow, so that all the implications of what we are seeing sink in. The cinematography is very beautiful and there is a Malick-style focus on the natural world and the placing of characters in landscapes. Music is very important – it is by Philip Glass (who you know well is one of my very favourites) and Paul Leonard-Morgan and both their contributions are perfectly integrated and affecting. In keeping with, and contributing to the mood of the piece, the music is slow and beautiful.

 

Ok, so this is clearly something which appeals to my personal taste and sensibility. Some critics have inevitably complained that it is too slow or that “nothing happens” (which is untrue – it just doesn’t happen very quickly). Such people are best ignored – they probably don’t like Terrence Malick movies either.

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For me, it is a marvel. What’s more, I simply can’t choose favourite episodes – each one is perfect and of equal quality to the others. They resonate in the imagination long after they have finished. Characters left in limbo are revisited (though not all of them) and the ending rounds off the series beautifully and in similar fashion to the way it started. I really hope there is no attempt at a second season, much as I could watch it endlessly, because I can’t see this being improved upon. Tales from the Loop is not just one for the shortlist – it is probably the year’s best and will be in my decade’s best, if I last that long.

 

If Tales from the Loop was an unanticipated revelation, Quiz, which finished on ITV last night, was possibly the most predictably entertaining thing of the year so far. It had 9C7571E7-3E8F-4D12-9DA1-3D0BA43BB4B7_4_5005_ceverything you could want: direction by Stephen Frears, again tackling in a three-part TV series the sort of real-life drama he has excelled at so many times; a terrific story – the attempt to defraud (or maybe not?) the mega hit quiz show of the turn of the century, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (ITV); a brilliant cast, headed by Matthew MacFadyen and Sian Clifford and including another spot-on cameo from Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant. Like the programme it depicted, it was cleverly “stripped” across three nights and was unmissable. And, of course, it delivered in spades. Whether that makes it a candidate for the shortlist, I’m not fully convinced, but, as the list is so short right now, it’s going in anyway. At the end of the day, there is no such thing as a sure-fire success and, even though this is about the nearest you could get to that, it is still a terrific achievement. So, we are up to 4!

 

Apart from that, much of my recent viewing (and listening) has involved online music platforms, many of which threw themselves open freely to the public during the current crisis. One of the first to do so was the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, to which I was already a subscriber (thanks to a generous Christmas gift from my wife). It isB4436504-9465-4B44-AB26-1C1ABF78FC0C_4_5005_c a magnificent resource and the concerts are beautifully presented visually – so much so that you really feel you are getting to know the individual instrumentalists and making it something that must be watched as well as listened to (though I often do listen while composing this blog). I also took in the complete Vienna State Opera Ring cycle (fine performances – lousy production) and, over the Easter weekend, an excellent stadium-style production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

 

With our extra reliance on digital audio-visual culture, one question many are asking is whether the lockdown will produce any interesting new TV or digital forms. So far, we have only had socially distanced versions of discussion, panel and chat shows. Whether anything may emerge in the genres of comedy or drama which takes account of the restricted production methods currently in operation is doubtful, but, if it did happen, it could be highly innovative and influential. The longer this goes on the more likely such things are to emerge. And if there is a big shift in production culture as a result, something like Tales from the Loop may end up as one of the last of the “traditional” masterpieces. Again, this is highly unlikely, but it would certainly be a worthy swansong for a phenomenal TV era.

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Time for a Break?

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Well, it’s been a while since my last blog and I’m now in self-isolation with my media and I haven’t yet begun my shortlist for 2020, but none of those things is what the title of this blog refers to. What I want to address is the seemingly endless stream of returning series which struggle hard to justify their continuing existing, as well as a few which have come back refreshed after some time away.

 

Let’s start with Doctor Who (BBC One). After the first three episodes of the latest series, I was about to give up on it. The storylines were getting repetitive and well trusted ways of 0ED92BB7-C982-4C03-AA59-A1314EF02DFE_4_5005_cgetting out of problems, like going back in time and changing things were being deployed. I had nothing against Jodie Whitaker’s doctor, but talk of who would come after her was already beginning to surface – it seems that any actor in this role needs to indicate they are leaving only just after they start, probably as a way of insuring that they are still considered for other roles. Indeed, I did give up watching, only to be lured back by the revelation about another Doctor and I did find the concluding Cybermen episodes highly engaging.

 

But the whole experience did prompt me to wonder if it may be time for the show to take another lengthy break and, in turn, to think about which other long-running (and specifically BBC) programmes this may apply to. In terms of Doctor Who, I’m not sure it needs to be away for as long as it was during the 1989-2005 hiatus, but that was a very fortunate circumstance as it gave people who were essentially fans of the show the time to establish themselves as TV writers and to re-invent the show as something fresh and vital. But that is viewing it with hindsight and I’m far from sure whether such a repeat scenario could be deliberately attempted, but it is certainly worth considering calling a halt after Whitaker’s third (and probably final) season. I do also worry that the idea that there may be so many other “unknown” Doctors around will be simply become over-used as another fallback plot device in future.

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Part of the function of the BBC is to represent the nation to itself and continuity is an important aspect to this. Certain calendar appointments seem set for as long as the Corporation exists and are part of our national fabric: Trooping the Colour, the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance, The Last Night of the Proms, Carols from Kings, Jools Holland’s Hootenanny. I’ve long thought that they could play tapes from earlier years for any of these and nobody would notice. Being a devotee of the Proms, I would probably spot the wrong Last Night, but I honestly don’t think I would be able to do so in the other cases.

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Regularly returning series also give us a feeling of comfort and security as the seasons change and underpin national togetherness (though much less now than they did when there were fewer channels and platforms) and the early months of the new year has seen the return of a number of overly familiar series. Soap operas are designed to be there forever as an accompaniment to (and a distraction from) our own lives – the plot possibilities are very wide, but their inevitable repetition simply mirrors the repetitiveness of life itself. Returning series, however, need constant refreshment and, if they become too repetitive, they risk overstaying their welcome or, even worse if they are dramas, becoming soap operas. They also take up valuable broadcast slots which could be occupied by more innovative material, which is still a major consideration for a public service broadcaster.

 

So, the BBC needs to be aware of what is becoming stale and throw it out – though not necessarily for ever. Here are my top current candidates for the axe:

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Strictly Come Dancing: It has become something of a mantra for the BBC, especially in times when its function and funding model are challenged, to point to Strictly as a great example of how a public service broadcaster can innovate in the area of popular entertainment formats. And, of course, the argument is absolutely correct – but unfortunately, it is now almost two decades out of date. Like all great successes, it has just gone on for far too long and, by continuing to occupy key Saturday and Sunday night slots, is actually denying the possibility of the next great entertainment innovation emerging.

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Casualty/Call the Midwife (for which read any one of the eternally returning familiars like Silent Witness, Last Tango in Halifax etc etc). Casualty long since became a regular returning series and morphed into a full-blown soap. Of all the current crop, Call the Midwife, despite its historic setting, seems the most likely to follow suit. Time to call a halt before it does.

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Question Time – formerly a vital part of our democratic process, it became, especially during Brexit, a shouting match with virtually no intellectual debate at all. This was because the BBC required a politically balanced audience as well as panel and the only way to get participants was from party organisations themselves, who packed it with loyal claques. As a result, all debate was reduced to slogans, cheered by half the audience and booed by the other half. It was unwatchable and was heading for oblivion until coronavirus arrived, which both got rid of the audience and seemed to impose a more restrained approach on the panellists, who actually began to think about their answers. How it responds when this crisis is over will be key. Any attempt to return to the old ways should be resisted and, if it does, then it should go.

 

Of course, it’s not just the BBC. Cold Feet was back on ITV – I tuned into new series just in case (or out of habit). I had guessed the next line twice before the first ad break. When that happens, it means you have got so far inside the writer’s head that he cannot come up with anything new to surprise you – familiarity has well and truly bred contempt. Having already taken a break between 2003 and 2016 and returned refreshed, it looks like time is now up.

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This problem applies to genres, as well. Deadwood Fell didn’t look like a drama which should be on Channel 4 on a Friday night. It had ITV on a Monday written all over it and had confirmed it within the first half hour. Spotting what to give up early has become an essential survival trick in the overstuffed world of modern TV drama. If the broadcasters won’t give you a break, you just have to take one for yourself.

 

So, have I actually seen anything so far this year, now three months old, which I have liked? Is there anything yet on the shortlist?

 

Well, there is certainly one emphatic “yes” in answer to that question and, appropriately enough, it is something returning triumphantly after a substantial layoff, much as Doctor Who did in 2005. It is also from the “other” most famous TV sci-fi franchise. Star Trek: 43835EA9-F2CE-4C40-9D00-170BB867587C_4_5005_cPicard, just finished on Amazon, was a brilliant re-boot of The Next Generation, presented as a ten-part story (in other words, like an extended movie rather than the classic series format). Production values matched the latest big-budget sci-fi potential, while the story gripped from first to last and the performances were impeccable. Nostalgia was given its space but did not get in the way of the developing narrative. And, philosophically, it had much more to say about artificial intelligence and humanity than any number of seasons of Westworld. The final scene between Picard and Data was just beautiful.

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Also returning to its very best after a few years off has been Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (Sky Comedy) – always a major favourite of mine (indeed, my number 1 US sitcom on the list I made a few months back), this season, its 10th, has seen a return to the basics which made it so in the first place. Which, I guess, doesn’t really make it qualify for shortlist status, but does mean I have had a fantastic number of laughs out of it.

 

Also, as always, worth mentioning is Inside no 9 (BBC2), back for its fifth series, though E78AE917-65DA-44B8-87A3-A2934F815F07_4_5005_cnot quite as impactfully as it was the same time last year with its fourth. It seems curmudgeonly to criticise something which delivers so regularly, and there were three Number 9 classics in this year’s bunch (The Referee’s a Wanker, Love’s Great Adventure and Thinking Out Loud) but, having included it in last year’s top ten, it would have had to improve on that season (almost impossible) to get in again this year.

 

Home (Channel 4), on the other hand, was only on its second season and impressed me enough to warrant a shortlist place. The genius of Rufus Jones’ sitcom is that the obvious 8271B791-1188-4BA9-939E-F792704516C8_4_5005_ccentral situation – the travails of a Syrian asylum-seeker in Britain – does not overwhelm the narrative. Indeed, in this season it became just a part of a traditional-seeming family sitcom, in which every character is rounded and has an engaging story. It can be very moving, but also devastatingly funny, and moves effortlessly beween those two states.

 

Anything else? Well, the Trip to Greece (Sky One) has been a predictably enjoyable continuation of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s jaunts. Armando Iannucci’s Avenue 5 (Sky Atlantic) is clever and impressively made, but the laughs come at a rate of about two per episode and it really should have been a movie rather than a series.

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OK, I think that brings me up-to-date. Just two for the shortlist in the first quarter of the year! Good grief, how I miss football!

Can We Have a Referee?

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Two summers ago, I wrote a blog (VAR Out!, 26 July 2018) reacting to the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee system in that year’s World Cup finals which, as the title implies, was highly critical of the technology and how it was being used. Now that we have the technology in use in our own Premier League and have endured over half a season of the problems it has brought, it is time to revisit the subject. This has been stewing in my brain for some time, but this last Saturday’s Match of the Day brought matters to a head, so here we go (‘ere we go, ‘ere we go!).

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Pretty much all the objections I had to VAR during the 2018 World Cup, as I expressed in my earlier blog, still apply, but now there are so many more! Its introduction and (mis-) application in the Premier League has been an unmitigated disaster, leading to chants of “it’s not football any more” and mass walk-outs by exasperated fans.

 

I will go into more detail about the problems below, but first it is worth considering how we got to this point in the first place. I blame the practice of interviewing managers after each game. It is now an integral part of the coverage and can be highly entertaining, but it adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of what we have seen and yet has had an impact way beyond its uselessness. You must remember that the manager being interviewed has only one audience member in mind when reflecting on a game: not the fans, not the TV audience, not the journalists or pundits – just the owner of his club, who employs him and pays his enormous salary. He is not, of course, going to reveal tactical details to the world and his rivals, so his replies are, inevitably, cliché-ridden and utterly predictable.

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One phrase which we hear ad nauseam particularly gets my goat and illustrates my thesis: “this is a difficult place to come”. It is the multi-purpose excuse: if the team has won, it has done well against the odds; if it has drawn, then any failure that may represent is understandable; if it has lost, well, “it’s a difficult place” (and the owner has to understand that). But “difficult” is a comparative term – linguistic logic dictates that if there are difficult things in any particular field of endeavour, there must also be some easy things. So, if there are “difficult” football grounds to visit, there must be some “easy” ones somewhere. If I had my way, every reporter interviewing football managers should counter the utterance of “this is a difficult place to come to” with the question “where are the easy places?”. There would be no answer of course – there are no easy games and that would be a dreadful hostage to fortune. Imagine trying to explain to an owner why his team had lost at a place you had described as an easy place to go to. But it may help to eradicate this awful platitude.

 

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy this part of the coverage and some managers are well worth listening to – Mourinho or Klopp of the current incumbents and, going back a distance, the legendary Brian Clough – but this is not because of the interest value of what they 963FE38A-FAB7-43D2-AE4D-03641275DAA2_4_5005_chave to say, but rather the entertainment value of how they say it. But how did we get from interviewing managers to VAR.? Well, it’s not difficult to see it. In the pre-VAR days, one of the greatest excuses a manager could have for his team’s failure was refereeing error. If video replays showed that his team had suffered an injustice, he would inevitably call for the introduction of technology to rectify such a fault (and simultaneously distract attention from talking about his team’s failure). On the other hand, the opposing manager would not have seen it or watched it back – Arsene Wenger was the finest exponent of the chutzpah required to deliver a line like this. Inevitably, every manager was at some point driven to call for the use of technology rather than admit to his team’s failings and the journalists amplified the clamour. “Guardiola demands introduction of video technology” screamed the headline – repeated every Sunday or Monday with a different manager’s name until the pressure to do so became irresistible. And so we got VAR. And now it gets the blame from the same mouths which demanded it.

 

If you don’t believe my thesis check out one of Gary Lineker’s observations on Saturday’s MOTD (22ndFebruary). After the highlights of the Burnley game he contrasted the differing “opinions” of Jose Mourinho and Sean Dyche concerning the absence of key C0F1D67F-B7CC-40E4-9FD1-9893BABB8FA2_4_5005_cstrikers through injury. Mourinho had lamented the absence of his stars whereas Dyche had seen it as an opportunity for their replacements to shine. But the reason for this difference of approach was not hard to find – Mourinho’s team had lost; Dyche’s team had won. If the results had been reversed, I can guarantee you the “opinions” would have been as well.

 

But the main focus of Saturday’s show was the continuing dissatisfaction with VAR. Previously, marginal offside decisions had been the main cause of complaint, but penalty decisions, particularly where handball is involved, have also been causing disquiet and there is increasing unease about VAR’s role in judging the severity of challenges which may or may not be worthy of red cards. On Saturday, all of these came to boiling point, with two matches showing controversies or discrepancies on marginal handball decisions (Burnley v Bournemouth and Leicester v Man City) and another two on potential red-card incidents (Chelsea v Spurs and Sheffield United v Brighton). We even had the spectacle of Frank Lampard complaining about the obvious clarity of the Lo Celso stamp on Alderweireld, while Jose Mourinho, who was about a yard away from the incident, had neither seen it at the time nor bothered to watch a replay. Replays had, however, shown that he clearly attempted to get the game moving again quickly in order that the incident should not impact the game.

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Most of the discussions on football programmes, particularly MOTD, has centred on how VAR could be altered to make it work. My own view is that it should be used in much the same way as cricket uses the review – emphasising the primacy of the “umpire’s call” and only reversing it if the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming (or “clear and obvious” as the original intention of VAR was stated). In terms of offside, there would need to be clear daylight between attacker and defender, either way, for an on-field decision to be reversed. Yes, this would lead to technically offside goals being allowed 5DA9FF93-BC9E-4742-9AF1-5FB33356A0DD_4_5005_c(and the opposite), but so be it, just as when the ball is shown to have (probably) been hitting the outside of leg stump a denied lbw is still denied because it was the umpire’s decision. The technology is just not reliable enough for some of the forensically marginal decisions we have had. The same should go for handball decisions, but here the change of law is as responsible for the problems as the VAR technology. Also, as with cricket, VAR usage could be limited to a number of challenges allowed to each side during a game.

 

But basically, I’m not really interested in making VAR work – I’d rather it was scrapped altogether. The erosion of spontaneity I cited in my earlier blog is a big part of the reason, but Saturday’s MOTD contained the worst example of its usage yet and the best argument for getting rid of it, when Bournemouth were denied an excellent equalising goal because of a marginal and highly debatable handball decision in the other penalty area moments earlier. That marginal (and, in my view, wrong) VAR decision caused the score to alter by two goals and finished the game. The Bournemouth fans should have walked out en-masse at that point, but they had travelled the length of the country to see their team and deserved so much better. It is no good saying (as managers often do) that a goal would not have happened if a decision elsewhere on the pitch, a throw-in decision or whatever, had gone a different way. The team has to defend a situation which will occur many times in a game, such as a corner, whether an error has been made in the build-up or not.

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I do, of course, have another reason for wanting rid of VAR. I love watching Premier League football, especially on MOTD, but can afford to be relatively dispassionate because my own team is not involved (yet!). However, Brentford are pushing for promotion to the Premier League this season, so it could become an issue for me. I regularly return home on a Saturday (and this last weekend was no exception) complaining that the referee was a wanker, but I recognise that referees have a hard job and are actually fulfilling a useful social function in being the focus of the discontent, which is as important as the joy of being a football fan. But to have that discontent caused by the structure of the game itself would, I imagine, be too much to bear. So, please let’s get rid of VAR and have our beloved football back.

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Come on you Bees!

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.