A Year of Two Halves?

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Les Miserables (BBC1)

True Detective (Sky Atlantic)

Moon and Me (cBeebies)

Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil (BBC2)

Three Identical Strangers (Channel 4)

Fleabag (BBC1)

Back to Life (BBC1)

Mum (BBC2)

Chernobyl (Sky Atlantic)

The Virtues (Channel 4)

Years and Years (BBC1)

63 Up (ITV)

Janet Baker: in her own words (BBC4)

One Day in Gaza (BBC2)

 

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

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

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

 

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

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Up the Past

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Better Left Unsaid

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

If You Didn’t Laugh…….

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

TV Top Tens: No.1- British Sitcoms

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I’ve always intended to start blogging lists of my top titles in various genres, which will be a useful thing to return to in quieter periods, and I am inspired to start now by the list of Top 20 British Sitcoms in the current issue of Radio Times.  I enjoy lists and, much as with awards, usually manage to find something to annoy or even enrage me in them. Of course, it’s all opinion (especially when it comes to comedy!) and I would hope my own lists may cause rage in others – that’s part of the fun. The latest Radio Times list is actually pretty good overall and the reason for that is not hard to find: the list of 42 practitioners who voted on it contains many estimable names, including the likes of UnknownClement and La Frenais, Linehan and Matthews, and Barry Cryer. However, there is a glaring omission – even these luminaries have somehow managed to produce a top twenty sitcoms list containing nothing by the generally acknowledged masters of the genre – Galton and Simpson. This is not just an oversight – this is mind-bogglingly wrong.

 

The Radio Times list has some other faults, too – there is nothing earlier than 1968, when Dad’s Army started, so nothing made only in black and white – even Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is specifically included without its monochrome predecessor, The Likely Lads. It’s usually the case that things which get regularly repeated stand a better chance of inclusion and the original Likely Lads is not only not in colour – much of it is missing. The biggest problem I find with so many lists is the lack of historical perspective – the most recent material usually predominates and, looking back on the roster of contributors to the Radio Times list, it is clear that those who would remember the earliest material are in a small minority.

 

There is one thing I need to get clear before setting out my own list and that is to define the parameters of the genre under consideration. In his inaugural 2017 Ronnie Barker imagesComedy Lecture, Ben Elton made the case for the traditional sitcom, recorded in a television studio in front of a live audience, and argued that it is a classic genre which is nowadays looked down upon by devotees of newer forms of comedy, made on location without a laughter track. Now, I am probably one of those Elton is thinking about – most of my favourite TV of the past two decades (both British and American) has been half-hour shows which are ostensibly comedy, but which have a serious edge (sometimes a very serious edge). Some of them are made primarily for laughs, but some are not – some are closer to drama than comedy (and never mind the duration). Another thing that sets them apart is narrative development across episodes, whereas a traditional sitcom usually has self-contained episodes which could be shown in any order. There could certainly be a separate list of half-hour comedy-dramas, but it would contain mostly recent material. Perhaps that is one for the future, or perhaps some of the titles may belong on drama lists, but for the present I am going to include both traditional studio and modern single-camera sitcoms on my list, as did the Radio Times, because I can’t think of any better way to do it.

 

One more consideration before I start – I am not including any titles which are currently still being made, though I may mention them, and some of the titles included here may yet return. Lists are always for future revision.

 

So, my top ten is:

 

  1. Steptoe & Son (BBC, 1962-65, 1970-74)

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Galton and Simpson’s masterpiece – a traditionally made studio sitcom which broke with tradition by casting straight actors in the lead roles and included moments of heartbreaking pathos amongst the laughs. These were real characters with real hopes and disappointments and, when it got serious, you could sense the audience’s uncomfortable reaction, which, of course, released itself in an even bigger guffaw when the laugh line eventually arrived. Four seasons were made between 1962 and 1965, then a further four from 1970 to 1974, when it returned in colour. I was proud to have played my part in recovering a dozen or so missing episodes in the nineties – Ray and Alan knew their worth and had kept them on an early and obsolete home video format.

 

  1. Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975, 1979)

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Often a poll-topper (not only the Radio Times one, but the BFI’s TV100 in 2000) and for good reason: the highest laugh quotient of any sitcom ever; terrific characters, not all of them particularly empathetic, but all very human; brilliantly constructed plots; memorable quotes – “duck’s off”. It was traditionally made but its impact was revolutionary.

 

  1. The Royle Family (BBC, 1998-2012)

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The key title in the transition from the “traditional” to the “modern” sitcom, thanks to the vision of Caroline Aherne: filmed mostly on a single set, but without an audience, it’s stately pace and minimalist narrative contained a wealth of insight, character, warmth and unspoken humour. Laughter track my arse!

 

  1. Getting On (BBC, 2009-12)

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Certainly one which falls into the category of laughs not being the primary concern, nevertheless there were plenty of them and they hit home. With brilliant characters created and written by the three actresses performing them, and sensitive direction (in the first two series) by Peter Capaldi it literally laughed in the face of death. The final episode said more about life and death than almost anything else I can think of in any genre. The idea was so strong that the American version (made by HBO) was also excellent and Jo Brand has gone on to create more memorable work in a similar vein, Damned (Channel 4) being particularly outstanding amongst current sitcoms.

 

  1. Him and Her (BBC, 2010-13)

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Another minimalist piece, this time not just restricted to a single set, but each episode shot in real time, allowing us to take in the acutely observed characteristics of the sympathetic, though lethargic, central pair and their relatives and friends, who range from the inept to the hateful. When the “action” moves outside the bedsit for the climactic wedding specials, it is apocalyptic. Writer Stefan Golaszewski has since repeated the trick with the beautiful Mum, the resolution of which is eagerly anticipated.

 

  1. The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC, 1964-66, 1973-74)

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Another sixties sitcom which was revived in the early seventies for colour TV, this could not simply replicate the previous format (as Steptoe did) but had to acknowledge that the lead actors had aged, thus introducing a narrative progression which became the series’ key strength. It became about the passage of time, about nostalgia and life progression and about social change in the north of England. It was also brilliantly funny (Clement and La Frenais) and perfectly performed by James Bolam and Rodney Bewes.

 

  1. The Office (BBC, 2001-3)

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Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant not only dispensed with a laughter track, they made a sitcom in the style of an observational documentary, which was a stroke of genius, but an extremely difficult thing to sustain convincingly as the plot became more complex. They pulled it off totally and their inspiration was responsible for so many iconic comedy moments.

 

  1. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79)

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A trailblazing narrative sitcom in three distinct seasons, linked by memorable characters, all with their own catchphrases, and with Leonard Rossiter’s towering performance at the centre. The repetitive nature of the dialogue (“17 minutes late…”; ”I didn’t get where I am today,,,”; “cock up on the….front”; “I’m not a…..person” etc), creates an oppressive but secure world which simply cannot be escaped.

 

  1. Blackadder (BBC, 1983-89)

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Following Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder and his familiar associates down through the centuries was a joy and the format allowed for constant renewal. Much of the humour came from anachronism, a very special trick which Ben Elton continues to show himself the master of in Upstart Crow (BBC), the best thing he has done since Blackadder.  Difficult to choose a favourite season, but if pushed I would probably go for Blackadder the Third.

 

  1. The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-2017)

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Of all my choices, this is the one I think is most arguably not a sitcom – you could say that, with three performers taking all the parts, it is more a series of sketches linked by a fictional location, though with narrative continuity for each set of characters. But, having included it, a top 10 spot was assured. Its triumphant return at Christmas 2017 was testament to the strength of the format and the characters created for it.

 

I intended my lists to be top tens, but the Radio Times sitcom list is a top 20 and, for purposes of comparison, if I were to continue in the same vein, these would be my next ten choices:

 

  1. I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002)
  2. Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-98)
  3. Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75, ITV, 1981)
  4. House of Fools (BBC, 2014-15)
  5. Hancock’s Half Hour/Hancock (BBC, 1956-61)
  6. Red Dwarf (BBC, 1988-99, Dave 2009-17)
  7. The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-12)
  8. Peep Show (Channel 4, 2003-15)
  9. Detectorists (BBC, 2014-17)
  10. Fleabag (BBC, 2016-19)

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Some of these choices require little further justification, but others demand comment: it is hard to overestimate the importance of Till Death in its sixties heyday – the searing impact of the writing and performances – but unfortunately the inevitable focus on its treatment of race makes it difficult to assess in a modern context; in House of Fools, Vic and Bob were not only conquering yet another genre, having produced their own surreal versions of the variety show, the sketch show and the comedy quiz show, but, by using the traditional sitcom model (70s style), subverting it still further; Detectorists drew you in with its relaxed pace, but the shows just flew by – on so many occasions I was astonished to find it finishing when I thought I had only been watching for ten minutes or so (great direction by Mackenzie Crook) – and I’m really enjoying Toby Jones’ own creation, Don’t Forget the Driver, on BBC2 at the moment; and Fleabag has only just finished, though we are assured it is over, so it qualifies for inclusion and I have put it at 20 simply because it feels too soon to proclaim it an instant classic to rank alongside the others here – ask me again in a year’s time and I expect it to be in my top ten.

 

Last thoughts: having made such a fuss about the difference between “traditional” and “modern” sitcoms, I have (not deliberately) managed to come up with a list of 20 which contains 10 of each, evenly spread through the list. I’ve also included 11 of the 20 titles chosen by the Radio Times panel and regret not finding room for The Young Ones (and I suspect One Foot in the Grave is hovering just outside the 20 in both cases). So, I guess I must be reasonably in line with the consensus, but I’m sure there are plenty of things about my list which will make somebody angry – I do hope so!

 

First Quarter Best Plays (and docs and comedies)

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So far this year, I have rather neglected my running shortlist for best of the year, so it’s time to take stock. In my last blog but one, I identified True Detective season 3 as one for the list and the programme I blogged about last time out, Moon and Me, should be there, too. But what else?

 

Going right back to the beginning of year (indeed, to the very end of last year, as its first part was transmitted on December 30th), Les Miserables (BBC1) surpassed the BBC’s War and Peace in terms of presenting a sprawling 19thcentury classic in 6 gripping episodes, thanks to the even greater brilliance of Andrew Davies’ adaptation this time around. It also concentrated less than its predecessor on sumptuous visuals, which allowed the outstanding acting performances from Dominic West et al to carry it higher. imagesAnd it was great to see an uncharacteristically unsympathetic performance from (surely soon to be Dame) Olivia Colman, though it is not the only thing on my shortlisted programmes from the first quarter to contain such a thing, as you will discover. An aside on Les Miserables: I was, unfortunately, unable to avoid a spoiler broadcast on BBC2’s quiz Only Connect (of which I am a devotee) just a week before the final episode aired. This came in the form of a question in which the teams were asked to find the connection between four names, of which Inspector Javert was one – the answer being that they were all fictional characters who committed suicide. Don’t they check these things?

 

Two other dramas from the first three months of the year are worth mentioning, though neither quite has the special quality required to join Les Miserables and True Detective on the shortlist. Manhunt (ITV) was an unsensational but very involving look at the police work which went into catching the serial killer in the Milly Dowler case, with Martin Clunes highly convincing as the detective involved. Brexit: the Uncivil War (Channel 4) starred Benedict Cumberbatch as the mastermind behind the Vote Leave Unknown-1campaign in the 2016 referendum. It contained eye-catching, though slightly caricatured portrayals of most of the well-known political figures involved in the debate, which is why Cumberbatch could convince so well as the unknown central figure. It was a timely reminder of how we got into the current mess, though the continuing coverage of the most recent political machinations has rendered it somewhat less remarkable.

 

Britain’s relationship with Europe was also the subject of the first of a new three-part documentary series from Norma Percy – Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil (BBC2).  It is Percy and her colleagues at Brook Lapping who have given us a host of wonderful “instant history” series from The Second Russian Revolution (1991) and The Death of Yugoslavia (1995) to the Peabody-winning Putin, Russia and the West (2012). They always seem to get most of the key players involved to give frank interviews about events and this was no exception, though David “it’s all your fault” Cameron was notable by his absence from the first programme (other than in archive footage). But that was far from the best of the series and the other two parts (on the Greek debt crisis and the migrant crisis respectively) surpassed it. Major leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande took part, though they are, of course, now off the scene and able to talk, whereas Angela Merkel’s part had to be explained by her former colleagues and advisors. A definite for the shortlist.

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Also for the shortlist is Channel 4’s Three Identical Strangers, which I include by virtue of its recent transmission on that channel and its production by Raw TV, even though it was first seen on the festival circuit last year. The story of the American triplets separated at birth and re-united in the 1980s in a blaze of media attention is fascinating images-1in its own right and well told using a classic mix of interviews and archive, but the subsequent revelations that they were part of a cruel and secretive psychological experiment leave you simultaneously shocked and intrigued by the contribution of the results to the nature vs nurture debate.

 

Two lengthy documentaries on musical icons are also worth mentioning. Leaving Neverland (Channel 4) certainly contained harrowing testimony concerning allegations of child sex abuse against Michael Jackson, but for me it was its excessive length rather than any doubts about the allegations that made it problematic. It was almost as though the producers (and commissioners) thought they had something so important on their hands that it demanded it be treated at great length, whereas there was nowhere near Unknown-4enough material for four hours of air time. Much better was David Bowie: Finding Fame (BBC2), the third part of Francis Whately’s outstanding trilogy about Bowie, this time looking at his rise to prominence and featuring excellent archival materials. It was a great watch and I am reluctant to leave it off the shortlist, but it is the trilogy that is the really impressive achievement, rather than this particular part.

 

Which leaves comedy and four highly anticipated arrivals/revivals. The much trumpeted “return to television” of Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) in This Time (BBC1) has contained some glorious moments, but overall has not lived up to my high expectations. I think this is a question of credibility, which is important in this context – while it was perfectly possible to believe Partridge would still have been a TV presence in the early Unknown-590s, that is not the case today. His decline and fall has been brilliantly chronicled in I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002) and Mid-Morning Matters (Sky Atlantic, 2012-16), plus a few occasional specials, but this latest development has stretched things too far in striving for familiar comic effects – he truly belongs on North Norfolk Digital, where the humour comes from subtle exchanges. By contrast, the final series of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe (Channel 4) was well judged and the ending was perfect, but the season as a whole was no advance on the previous ones, which still makes it pretty damn good, but, without the impact it made on its first appearance, not quite shortlist material any more.

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I would say that Ricky Gervais’ After Life (Netflix) certainly did live up to my high expectations and I enjoyed it very much (and will certainly be back for more when it returns). However, it also had a bit too much of a ring of familiarity about it – all of Gervais’ prime concerns were aired and the cast contained a number of previous collaborators (Kerry Godliman, Ashley Jensen, David Earl) as well as some excellent performers in minor roles, some of whom (Penelope Wilton, Roisin Conaty) made the most of their cameos, while others (Diane Morgan, Joe Wilkinson, Paul Kaye) were largely wasted in underwritten parts. I had the good fortune recently to see Ricky Gervais at a local theatre, trying out material for his upcoming stand-up tour and Netflix special and it was a great evening, but even a devoted fan like me has to admit that his facility for saying what I agree with and making it funny has become a little too easy to him. He needs to be extended and After Life does not do that, even though it is him at his best, so I reluctantly leave it off the shortlist. Another aside, though: at the end of the end credits is a line giving “special thanks to the British Film Institute and the people of the United Kingdom” – I’ve no idea what this means, but I guess it’s a sentiment I can relate to.

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So, with none of these eagerly awaited comedies making the shortlist, it is a relief to say that the final one of the four most emphatically does make it, and, indeed, is the best thing of the year so far for me. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (BBC1) reached the end of its second (and final, we understand) season last night. After an engaging first season which was fairly whimsical until a late revelation which upended all our assumptions, the second season has been consistently brilliant at alternating great comedy with psychological insight and even religious and philosophical musing. The third episode was a corker – a hilarious business reception, a brilliant cameo from Kristin Scott-Unknown-7Thomas and a marvellous scene in which Andrew Scott’s priest challenged Fleabag’s fourth-wall-breaking asides to the audience, which indicated that she had at last found somebody who understood her, but maybe even put us, the audience, in the same position for her as his God is for the priest. All that and even a variant on the classic fart-in-a-lift joke – wonderful writing. The supporting cast is magnificent, with Sian Clifford outstanding as Fleabag’s sister Claire and, of course, Olivia Colman as the villain of the piece.

 

All of which makes me wonder why I find Fleabag so vastly superior to Killing Eve, which everybody else seems to think is the best thing since whatever. You may think making such a comparison is pointless, but I think their similarities go further than just Unknownthe Phoebe Waller-Bridge connection. Both are series in half hour episodes which mix a comedic approach with startling developments to exhilarating effect and both feature women in all the leading roles. So, here are my reasons why Fleabag is better than Killing Eve:

 

  • Obviously, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is actually in Fleabag, giving a wonderful dramatic and comedic performance, and:
  • She wrote all of Fleabag, so it is more consistently brilliant than Killing Eve, as well as having a more defined narrative arc (indeed, she will not be writing any of Killing Eve season two, which is another reason I won’t be watching it). Furthermore:
  • Fleabag knows where it is going. Killing Eve just wants to keep going
  • Fleabag is a personal project – Killing Eve is an adaptation of a series of novels
  • The main leads all being female feels totally natural in Fleabag – in Killing Eve it feels like a gimmick
  • The startling developments are more startling (and thus more impactful) in something which is primarily a comedy than primarily a thriller
  • Fleabag knows when to end (and last night’s ending was so affecting, the BBC even gave it the rare honour of not allowing the continuity announcer to speak over the end credits). Killing Eve should have ended at the end of the first season and its failure to do so was the main reason I gave up on it

 

Actually, all that says much more about Fleabag and why it is so good than it does about Killing Eve.

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Just one more comedy to mention, but not one in line for shortlisting, alas. I have been waiting years to catch up with Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which won a 2016 Peabody, but hasn’t been available anywhere here until the outstanding first season arrived on BBC2 over the past couple of months. I hope they can catch up with the rest of it soon. In the meantime the latest Peabody list is imminent, so I’m looking forward to some more reliable recommendations.

Again!, Again!, Again!

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No programme-maker is more in touch with the wonder and the rhythms of infancy, nor is better able to express that wonder and those rhythms in audio-visual terms than Andrew Davenport. As a constant viewer of CBeebies with my daughter Hanna (as I have explained previously), I have been fortunate to have been immersed in his world and to have appreciated just what a brilliant and innovative contribution to the genre of images-2preschool television he has given us with the three shows he has created over the past two decades, the latest of which arrived in February. But he is not only the creator – he produces, writes and composes the music for each episode.

 

There is no doubt that his greatest impact was with Teletubbies (BBC2, CBeebies, 1997-), which changed the landscape of what was possible in a programme for very young children. There was plenty of controversy about it: the limited language which mimicked that of very young children perfectly, but was criticised for normalising it at a time when the main function of such programmes was meant to be education and progression; the generally surreal setting and atmosphere which led some to wonder whether the makers were on drugs and attracted a cult images-2student audience; even Tinky Winky’s sexuality! But its main and greatest innovation was repetition. This applied not only to the filmed stories of different children’s lives which appeared on the Teletubbies’ stomach monitors and which they immediately demanded to be repeated in full, but to segments of the show itself – dances, adventures, domestic life in the Teletubby house, which could be shuffled around to comprise parts of different editions.

 

Teletubbies starts with a sunrise and ends with a sunset, so each episode takes place over the course of a day, but Davenport’s next creation, In the Night Garden (CBeebies, 2007-) begins with a small child (a different one for each episode) in bed and being coaxed to sleep with a story, so it can best be interpreted as a dream (as the title suggests). It is a very beautiful and comforting beginning, which is probably more emotionally resonant for any watching adults than children. Once the dream world of the night garden has been reached, the stars in the sleepy night sky having bust into the flowers of the bright garden, familiar characters arrive and have various adventures, all of them once again interchangeable from episode to episode.

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Where Teletubbies was hallucinatory and surreal, In the Night Garden seems to be exploring the world of the early subconscious, and Davenport has taken this further with his new series, Moon and Me (CBeebies, 2019-). Again it starts with a child preparing for bed, this time by closing down the dolls’ house she has been playing with and putting her toys to bed, but now it is the same little girl every time and the similarity of their hairstyles indicates that her favourite toy, Pepi Nana, is her surrogate once she has gone to sleep and the toys have come to life. So, it can again be interpreted as her dream, though the Storyland sections indicate that it may also be a bedtime story. CBeebies’ scheduling of the series at 5.45 backs this up, though In the Night Garden retains its 6.30 bedtime slot.

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The similarities between the characters In Moon and Me and In the Night Garden are also obvious – Pepi Nana is like Upsy Daisy, Collywobble resembles Makka Pakka. My favourite has to be Mr Onion, who constantly says “onions” with a chuckle in his voice. Indeed, all the characters have their own catchphrases, which they repeat ad nauseam, though with variations of tone and stress to indicate attitude; Pepi Nana has a multitude of different ways of saying “tiddle toddle”. Mind you, having spent the last weeks (months!) listening to the same politicians saying precisely the same things about Brexit over and over again, day after day, this is clearly not confined to the world of pre-school television.

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One striking difference between Moon and Me and Davenport’s two previous series is the use of colour; muted pastel shades replacing bright primary colours, even in the pastoral Storyland, which has echoes of both Teletubbyland and the Night Garden. Davenport’s music is again a major factor, in fact even more so this time as it is integrated by having the characters play their own instruments: Moon Baby’s hand harp is key. The narration is consequently less important than in the Night Garden, where Sir Derek Jacobi’s actorly tones are so perfect for the nonsense rhymes he is asked to recite:

 

Ombliboo, Tombiboo, knock on the door.

Ombiiboo Tombliboo, sit on the floor.

Ombliboo, Tombliboo, here is my nose.

Ombliboo, Tombliboo, that’s how it goes.

The characters in Moon and Me are animated to move the way they would if a child was playing with them; just watch the way Little Nana moves up and down as though being picked up and placed down. There is no tea in the teapot or cups, but they are moved just as if a playing child were moving them. Davenport did a lot of research on play patterns imagesto get this right. When Pepi Nana comes downstairs, or crosses a bridge, you see her do it in real time, or, through clever editing including the beginning and end of the journey, the complete process of the action is conveyed so that it seems it has been shown in full. This is a style associated with the great French director Robert Bresson, and Davenport also uses close ups of characters’ hands or feet in a similar way to Bresson. (Is that comparison worthy of Pseud’s Corner or what?) The overall effect is a feeling of immersion – the sort you get from listening to minimalist music or watching a piece of “slow TV” like The Canal Journey. It is very relaxing and reassuring.

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I hope this may inspire you to watch the odd episode or two of Moon and Me, even if you don’t have a pre-schooler to watch it with. It would be twenty minutes of your time well spent on the BBC i-Player. Both Moon and Me and In the Night Garden work for adults who may like occasionally to regress to the world of infancy, not as any sort of perversion, but as a relaxing break from the ugliness of so much everyday public discourse.

 

Tiddle toddle! Poop poop!

 

Onions.

 

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