The Art of Documentary

At a time when the restrictions of consecutive lockdowns were really starting to be felt in the television schedules, it was wonderful to be presented with the most outstanding offering in some time from a programme-maker whose signature modus operandi is entirely unaffected by (and may even have been enhanced by) the circumstances of the past year. Adam Curtis’ series utilise only archival footage and music, the vast majority of it from the BBC’s collections, and his own voice-over. It is not difficult to imagine him assembling them in total isolation, though the end credits indicate a certain amount of collaboration.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World (BBC iPlayer) is, for me, the best thing he has done since his astonishing breakthrough series Pandora’s Box in 1992, although in the intervening years he has regularly delivered excellent and fascinating pieces, most notably The Century of the Self (2002) and The Power of Nightmares (2004), all for the BBC. It can sometimes be frustrating that his narrative seems to go off at unusual tangents, but this is only the case if you look at his series and single works as traditional documentaries, with set “rules” to follow, not if you look at them, as I like to, as works of art. It may seem strange to take this approach, especially as Curtis himself is pretty unambiguous that his intention is to present a documentary narrative supported by illustrative materials, but it is the way that those materials are assembled and presented that is unique to his approach and the choices he makes in the process of selection, assembly and the addition of music seem to me to be artistic and instinctive ones rather than logical and factually explicable.

This is most certainly true of Can’t Get You Out of My Head, and the use of the word “emotional” in the second part of the title is key here, implying as it does that what we are being offered is highly personal rather than objectively justifiable. This is his artistic style taken to its extreme, though, ironically, I also thought that the arguments presented in his narrative were more coherently developed over the course of the series (which almost followed a chronological progression as well) than in many of his previous works.   Sections of it came across like a favourite archive series of mine, The Rock ’n Roll Years (BBC, 1985– 94) with exhilarating and thought-provoking combinations of music and images. Curtis’ voice-over and writing style is also very distinctive – he loves chronological links and the phrase “at the same time” recurs like a leitmotif.

The most obvious comparison here is to Curtis’ 2009 contribution to an immersive artwork called It Felt like a Kiss, made in collaboration with Punchdrunk Theatre Company and Damon Albarn for the Manchester International Festival. Clearly this was intended as a work of art, but the film which came from it contains Curtis’ trademark archival film and music combinations, and a series of captions replacing the usual voiceover, which is still very recognisably Curtis (even at one point including “at the same time”). The film can be seen on Curtis’ BBC website page here:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003x62n

It Felt Like a Kiss also showcases Curtis’ ongoing obsession with Lee Harvey Oswald, who is one of the characters focussed on in Can’t Get You Out of My Head, though he is mainly approached in the latter through a more in-depth exploration of the life and thoughts of his associate Kerry Thornley, both before and after the Kennedy assassination. Thornley is one of several characters whose lives are used as case studies to illustrate Curtis’ various theses and the occasional intersection of whose trajectories allow for so many “at the same time” moments.  Others featured include Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), Michael de Freitas (Michael X), black panther Afeni Shakur and her rapper son Tupac, transexual pioneer Julia Grant and Soviet dissident Edward Limonov. Curtis describes his aim in the series as to explore how we got to where we are now and, indeed, it covers a long historic span, mostly from the fifties to the present, though also, in one striking episode, delving back into the murky world of British imperialism in China. But this is history seen manly from the psychological perspective, particularly exploring the tension between individualism and the demands of society and so much is communicated wordlessly through the combination of archive and music, which, of course makes it almost as much a matter of the viewer’s interpretation as Curtis’ intention.

Curtis uses a wide range of archive material from around the world and never fails to find some amazing stuff, but nearly all of it is sourced from the BBC’s own collection (which, of course, contains material used in BBC programmes but not originally made by the corporation). The end credits include a list of “other archive sources” which is pretty brief and there are no other archive listings, so knowing where the material comes from is not possible, which is frustrating. In a recent piece for Sight and Sound, Curtis identifies and discusses a handful of the most striking extracts, but it would be really interesting (especially to an ex-archivist like myself) to be able to get information on it all. This could easily be digitally embedded or could be included in a commentary track, but I get the impression this may somehow undermine the mystique – do we need to know exactly what Curtis intended at every moment or should we be expected to accept the artist’s vision? I think this question goes to the heart of the issue of whether Curtis’ work is primarily documentary or artistic in nature and I find parallels here with the work of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, especially his 4-part epic Hitler: a Film from Germany (1977), which is similarly densely crammed with visual and audio references, some, but by no means all of which I get, but would still like a directorial explanation of, though I do worry that such a thing may spoil the effect.

Also in the Sight and Sound piece, Curtis explains how much the digitisation of the BBC’s archives has helped his work and made both finding and sourcing his extracts easier and quicker. This is a tremendous justification of the long and hard work done by my archival colleagues at the BBC over so many years and the Corporation’s commitment of resources to it. Their commitment to providing Curtis with an i-player platform for his work is also highly commendable (worth the price of the licence fee etc!) and Can’t Get You Out of my Head can be found here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/p093wp6h/cant-get-you-out-of-my-head

TV Top Tens: No 3 – British Drama Series

The Singing Detective

The slowdown in production continues to limit viewing just now (though there is ample football to fill the void), so it is back to list-making and to catch-up for the time being. Drama series are the subject or the prime focus of the most TV lists you can find. Even lists of just the “best TV” will be dominated by them. There is a need for some definitions up front – I am talking about series and serials, though most of the entries on my British list below will be what Americans would call miniseries, in other words self-contained stories told in multiple parts with a beginning and an end in the one “season”. There are two reasons why they dominate my list – they are what British TV has been best at and they are what I like best. In recent years there has been a trend, following the American model, for series which would previously have been self-contained to go to a second or third season, with the decision to continue often being taken after the original work has been made and depending on its success. In turn, this encourages the writer (singular, because there is usually only the one, following the traditional British model) to leave open the possibility of continuing the story. Sometimes this has proved well worthwhile (Happy Valley), but often has led to disastrous misjudgements which have spoiled the reputation of the original (Broadchurch, The Fall) and made me wish they hadn’t tried.

But I digress into a rant, which was not the point of this blog. To return to my definitions, I am only including anthology series where there is creative or thematic continuity: so, Black Mirror and Talking Heads qualify; Play for Today doesn’t. I have also, from personal preference, tended to privilege original writing for television over adaptations of novels, though the inclusion of a few of the latter has been inevitable. Finally, having included them in my earlier sitcom lists, half-hour dramatic comedies are not included here. 

So, to start with the top 10:

  1. The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986)

Dennis Potter’s masterpiece is unrivalled – a brilliantly complex interweaving of memory, fantasy, songs and fiction-within-fiction to produce a superb six-part psychological study of the (semi-autobiographical) protagonist. Much of the credit must go to director Jon Amiel, because the visual grammar is as important as Potter’s magnificent script.

2. Talking to a Stranger (BBC, 1966) 

Writer John Hopkins and director Christopher Morahan honed their skills on the seminal series Z-Cars and combined to produce this searing four-part psychological study of a family in crisis for the Theatre 625 slot on BBC2. A landmark in the presentation of challenging drama on television, it gave an unforgettable role to a young Judi Dench.

3. Pennies from Heaven (BBC, 1978)

No apologies for putting two Potters in the top three. If anything, this was an even greater leap of the imagination than The Singing Detective – nothing like it had been seen before, though the device of having the characters mime to popular songs, as both an indication of their desires and a commentary on the action, has been much imitated since, but never used as effectively as here. Gripping, thought-provoking and, above all, highly entertaining.

4. Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981)

The finest literary adaptation of them all and a major milestone in the development of quality television drama shot on film, not to mention an enormous financial risk for a commercial broadcaster (albeit produced by Granada, the most public service oriented of the ITV companies). Everything about it is lavish – the locations, the period recreations, the casting – but it is also so much more: a riveting saga played out over 13 monumental episodes.

5. Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1982)

The effects of unemployment in the early 1980s seen through the eyes of Alan Bleasdale’s vivid and unforgettable characters. Brilliantly written, acted and directed, it is of its time, yet speaks directly to us today through raw emotion and human empathy. Yosser’s despair will always remain the series’ touchstone, but every moment rang true.

6. The Shadow Line (BBC, 2011)

Writer/director/producer/sometime actor Hugo Blick is British televison’s greatest auteur and his first drama series, after a string of comedies, came as a blast of very fresh air. Stylish, gripping, full of wonderful set-pieces and mesmerising characters and totally unique in both its visual and narrative approach, it thrilled and provoked over six memorable episodes

7. Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991-2006)

Difficult now to remember the full original impact of this portrayal of the struggles of a female police detective both to be taken seriously by her colleagues and to solve a horrific crime, mainly because the gripping drama and the brilliant performance by Helen Mirren in the first and subsequent six stories are by themselves enough to secure its place as one of British TV’s greatest productions.

8. Quatermass (BBC, 1953, 1955, 1958)

The pioneering and experimental nature of live television drama in the 1950s found no greater expression than in Nigel Kneale and Rudoplh Cartier’s seminal science fiction serials featuring Professor Bernard Quatermass: The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit. Powerful, gripping and totally original, they were the event television of their day.

9. Days of Hope (BBC, 1975)

Ken Loach and Jim Allen are the prime exponents of socially conscious left-wing drama on British TV, and this collaboration was a rare series amongst the single films and plays they usually produced. Ranging over ten years from the First World War to the General Strike its four feature-length episodes traced the growth and ultimate betrayal of the labour and trade union movements through the story of a working-class family.

10. Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011-13, Netflix, 2015-)

The anthology for our times, Charlie Brooker’s bleak warnings about the direction our technology may be taking us are more than just fantastic ideas – they are full of wonderful writing, direction, acting and production value and the quality has been constantly maintained. Brooker is the guiding force, but other writers have made telling contributions and, although much of the production may have shifted to the US, it remains British in both origin and spirit.

In my sitcom lists, I followed my top ten with my next ten (11-20) but, in this instance, there are so many series I want to mention that I’m going to add another 15 to make a top 25:

11. Talking Heads (BBC, 1988, 1998, 2020)

12. The Street (BBC, 2006-9)

13. Blind Justice (BBC, 1988)

14. Utopia (Channel 4, 2013-14)

15. Cracker (ITV, 1993-2006)

16. Wolf Hall (BBC, 2015)

17. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC, 1979)

18. Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-)

19. The Prisoner (ITV, 1967)

20. This is England (Channel 4, 2010-15)

21. Z Cars (BBC, 1962-1978)

22. Holding On (BBC, 1997)

23. Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984)

24. Top Boy (Channel 4, 2011-13, Netflix, 2019-)

25. I, Claudius (BBC, 1976)

…. and, even then, I have not been able to find room for Our Friends in the North, Traffik, Sherlock, Law and Order, GBH, Save Me or Shooting the Past!

I followed my list of best British sitcoms with a list of American ones and I will do the same with drama series: expect my US drama list later in the year (and expect an inverse ratio of series to miniseries). After that, I will give you a top ten drama series from that magical place “the rest of the world” and will attempt to combine the three lists to give an overall top ten. I wonder if this year will produce anything to crash into the reckoning?

The Year that Wasn’t There (except on TV)

This was a very strange TV year. It seemed to start so badly that I had barely any shortlisted programmes until the pandemic struck, at which point it looked as though it would be a total washout with production halted. But there were a number of excellent things already in the can, new forms of production were improvised and the summer easing of restrictions allowed the completion of some productions already underway.

In the end, there were plenty of things to fill the regular top 50 lists from the likes of The Guardian and Radio Times, while the poll I take part in myself, the BFI’s, produced a wide variety of nominations. While I noted and commended in this blog a fair number of the titles which filled these lists, my own shortlist of the things I regarded as the very best only crept above the magic number 10 in the final weeks of the year.

If, as I had expected, I had ended with 10 shortlisted titles, things would have been very easy, but ending with 11 puts me in a dilemma: do I eliminate just one title? ; do I list them all and claim that, while most top tens only go up to 10, mine goes up to 11? ; do I list them in order and have a joint 10th?  Well, none of these – I am going to add one title which I greatly admired but (unaccountably) omitted to shortlist and give you a top dozen for 2020. This also enables me to add a second factual programme and restore some missing balance.

As always, I’ll list them in (rough) order of appearance through the year:

Star Trek: Picard (Amazon)

A welcome return for an old favourite in a new format, which did justice to all expectations.

Home, season 2 (Channel 4)

Moving and hilarious by turns, it walked several tightropes without a false step

Tales from the Loop (Amazon)

My best of the year – simply beautiful

Quiz (ITV)

Another wonderfully entertaining three-parter from Stephen Frears

Normal People (BBC3/1)

The big hit of lockdown, which allowed many more than would otherwise have watched to appreciate the way it slowly drew us in and kept us entranced.

After Life season 2 (Netflix)

Ricky Gervais really hit his stride in this second season and produced ensemble comedy at its best, while remaining true to its more meditative side at the same time.

Isolation Stories (ITV)

The best of the short dramas employing improvised production techniques under lockdown conditions and commenting most effectively on the situation we found ourselves in.

I May Destroy You (BBC1)

The most strikingly original new drama of the year

Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC2)

Riveting documentary series in which the testimonies to camera were the highlight

Play for Today: Drama Out of a Crisis (BBC4)

Brilliantly effective visual use of archive, employing every pixel of the HD screen to convey the full importance of the Play for Today strand on its 50th anniversary

The Crown: The Hereditary Principle (Netflix)

The standout episode of the best season so far

Small Axe (BBC1)

Significant aspects of black British history given immediacy and contemporary relevance by Steve McQueen’s storytelling and directorial skills

A lot of people watched a lot of TV this year and so it came under greater than usual critical scrutiny. The end-of-year lists I mentioned above reflect this, too, and, while there are certain things that recur in many of them, there is also a lot more divergence than usual. I find it strange that I have not been able to find four of my own choices on any other list, even those of 50 titles or more (apart from my own mention of two of them in the BFI poll). I’m particularly disappointed by the absence of my own personal favourite, Tales from the Loop, though I’m even more surprised not to find Picard on any of the lists I’ve seen.

But that’s what making lists is all about – there are plenty of things I have left out which others would champion, some of which would have been there if I was doing a list of as many as 50 or even 20 (Mrs America, Anthony, Des, Lovecraft Country), though my shortlisting system is intended to work as a kind of rigorous excellence filter and I tend to judge the overall quality of the TV year on the number I put on my shortlist. Added to which, even with as much time on our hands as we have had this year, it is still near impossible to have seen everything of interest – I have to admit that I didn’t see The Third Day (I intend to) or The Undoing (I don’t).

How much we will continue to be stuck indoors in the coming year and how much new production there will be is in the balance, but whatever happens, do have a very Happy New Year and, if you are stuck for finding something to watch, I hope my list helps.

The Queen, McQueen and the Chess Queen

Small Axe: Mangrove

So, we reach the end of December and my shortlist, in this unusual year, still currently stands at only 9. However, three new or returning recent series in particular suggested the possibility of pushing the total up to, or over the magic 10. Did they do it?

The Queen’s Gambit

First to arrive was The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), until recently the platform’s number one performer in Britain and subject to a very positive critical reception, which pushed me in its direction. I enjoyed it, for sure, but that’s as far as it went. I was particularly drawn to it by the involvement of Scott Frank as co-creator and director, having been really impressed by his 2017 series Godless. Indeed, the direction was very strong here too – a narrative which was driven forward engagingly and with some great set-pieces, especially the chess matches, the balance of which were cleverly conveyed in each case, even for those who know nothing about chess strategy. The acting was good, too, as was the period recreation – the problem was in the script. Everything fell into place far too neatly. Although the sexism of the age was tackled, it seemed to be little problem to Beth’s meteoric rise to chess champion, and, in a field notorious for its rivalries and mid-games, her defeated opponents mostly acted in a very good-natured and sporting manner. It just didn’t ring true at the moments it most needed to.

Olivia Colman in The Crown

The Queen’s Gambit was also soon overtaken as Netflix’s number one by the behemoth that is The Crown season 4, which needed little in the way of publicity to gain that spot but got a lot more than usual this time round. Indeed, there was more coverage of its veracity from news outlets than there was critical coverage from cultural commentators. Demands were made that it be clearly labelled a work of fiction (as if we didn’t know) and armies of the supposedly “in the know” emerged to denounce minor details which don’t fit with their own understanding of events. Of course, the truth is that nobody is in a position to know for sure what the royals do or say when out of the public eye, other than the royals themselves, and they are not in a position to put their own side of events aside from briefing those friends and “experts” according to their own positions and agendas. When they do attempt direct commentary on their lives, it usually goes badly wrong, as Prince Andrew found out recently. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for Peter Morgan and his collaborators to speculate, to embellish and to illustrate their narrative with dramatically coherent and engaging devices which convey the aspects of the story they are telling most effectively.

Gillian Anderson in The Crown

And that they have done brilliantly in this latest season, which is by far the best we have yet had. It is, naturally, helped by the era being tackled – the decade of Thatcher and Diana – and the fact that, as it comes nearer to our own times it gains greater resonance. It is also bolstered by the uniform excellence of the cast, led by a trio of riveting actresses: Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham-Carter and Gillian Anderson. Colman’s scenes with Anderson are particularly memorable.

The Crown: Fagan

For me, the best episodes were numbers 5, Fagan, and 7, The Hereditary Principle. The former found an emblematic device to explore the main tensions of the Thatcher years. The latter was the best of all, going to the heart of fundamental questions about the nature and function of royalty in the way that Morgan does best. It does not matter that Princess Margaret may not have been directly involved in discovering the truth about the royal relatives confined to a mental institution, because it worked well as drama and the episode says so much about the institution of monarchy (and don’t forget that the crown, or the monarchy it represents, is the title character of the series, as I argued in an earlier blog – The Queen Regenerates, January 2018), as well as about social attitudes to disability. It also gives Helena Bonham-Carter the best showcase for her acting talents and it is maybe not surprising that she was among those calling for the series to be labelled clearly as fiction. 

The Crown: The Hereditary Principle

Having not shortlisted any of the previous series of The Crown, I am a little hesitant to start now, so I will simply include the episode The Hereditary Principle, which could certainly stand alone as a single drama. Having excluded The Queen’s Gambit on the grounds that it did not ring true at key moments, it may seem strange to be including something which has been accused of diverging from the record of real events, but the point here is whether it rings true dramatically. One element I always keep my eye on is exposition, which can be dramatically problematic if not handled well. In this series of The Crown, a great deal of exposition was presented through news on TV screens. Now, I certainly know when I am looking at real or fake news footage, and I also know when the fake stuff has been done convincingly and when it has been done badly, because in the latter case it jars terribly. And that happened on a few occasions in this series, but I was happy to go along with it for the sake of advancing the drama, just as I am happy to go along with the speculative scenes if they work well as drama, without demanding verification of every detail.

Small Axe: Mangrove

If I didn’t expect to be singling out one episode of The Crown, rather than the whole series, then I certainly did approach Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (BBC1) with that possibility in mind, given that it was an anthology of 5 separate films, albeit thematically linked by being set in London’s Afro-Caribbean communities in the seventies and eighties and mostly based on true events and characters. And, as it started, this seemed the best approach. The first film, Mangrove, was the most cinematic in presentation, ambition and duration. It had its flaws, though they were understandable ones: there was rather too much explanatory exposition which made for unconvincing dialogue; the police and judiciary were little more than cardboard cut-out villains; and the depiction of constant police raids on the Mangrove restaurant, while historically accurate, did begin to seem overused as a dramatic device. But the final half-hour, which was basically the trial, was riveting in much the same way as Netflix’s Trial of the Chicago Seven was, though at a more economical length. And McQueen’s directorial flair was prominently on display, as it was throughout – he is a great storyteller, but also unafraid to produce startling and sometimes lengthy moments of visual metaphor or reflection to underscore his approach.

The second film, Lovers Rock, was presented as the only fictional story in the series, which was strange because it seemed the most documentary. Some 80% of it was a recreation of a West Indian house party in 1980 and, given that the whole series involved period recreation in one form or another, it fitted in perfectly. The storyline was presented in the sparse scenes of dialogue which interrupted the music (rather than, as more common, the other way around) and the plot was a very simple boy-meets-girl and…er…that’s it.

Small Axe: Lovers Rock
Small Axe: Red, White and Blue

My favourite segment was the third, Red, White and Blue, starring John Boyega as Leroy Logan, one of the earliest black recruits to the Metropolitan Police, with the dramatic tension coming from the conflict between his ambitions, his treatment by colleagues and the reaction of his family and community, all of which he attempts to reconcile. The racism he encounters is insidious rather than overt, especially from the senior officers who want him to succeed, but not too much. Boyega is brilliantly convincing in the role and the film leaves him at a moment of extreme self-doubt. Strangely, there is no caption at the end to tell us that Logan rose to the rank of Superintendent, played a role in the Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor enquiries and was decorated by the Queen. There is no dramatic reason why there should have been such a caption, but it does contrast with the fourth film in the series, Alex Wheatle, which similarly leaves its protagonist at a critical point but does inform us through a caption that he went on to a successful career as a writer and was similarly honoured. The two films are very much companion pieces and convinced me at this point that the sum of Small Axe as a series was very much more than that of its constituent parts. The final film, Education, reinforced this feeling, so I am ending up by putting the whole series on my shortlist as a single coherent piece.

Having said at the top that there were three new series worthy of consideration, I’ll briefly mention a fourth – one with which I couldn’t make a “queen” connection, so it did not fit my attempt at a snappy title for the blog. Season 2 of His Dark Materials (BBC1) continued very much in the same vein as the first – in other words it was very good and well worth watching. Rather like Lord of the Rings, which it resembles in many ways, it’s probably best to wait for completion before including it in a “year’s best” list, though.

His Dark Materials

So, with apologies for the lateness of this blog (again due to my particular circumstances in this difficult year) and hoping you are all having a great Christmas, I’ll be back before the year ends with that final list. Two blogs in two days! But, with the shortlist now standing at 11, it won’t be too difficult , will it?

Home Cinema

Before TV became my career and even for some time after preserving its output (and therefore advocating for its quality) became my professional focus, the cinema was my first love and main passion. At the height of my obsession, in the seventies and eighties, I would visit a cinema three or four times a week and could not forsee a time at which such activity would not remain a regular part of my life. But nowadays, though I remain engaged with the world of films, I rarely watch any outside my own home. The change was gradual and came about for many reasons: here’s how and why it happened – and why I am inspired to write about it at this particular moment.

Though I had been a regular filmgoer since childhood, it was at University that I became interested in it as an art form rather than just an entertainment. I joined the University Film Society (OUFS) and was a regular visitor to the wonderful Moulin Rouge Cinema in Headington (now, alas, long gone) as well as the screens in the centre of the city. This was the era of Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, Death in Venice and the highly impactful (on me) first re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Towards the end of my undergrad years, I started to take notice of European “art” cinema, which would later come to dominate my viewing.

During my time of training and early employment as a librarian in the mid to late 70s, new cinematic vistas opened. In both public and specialist libraries, evening shifts meant afternoons off in lieu and, being in central London, afforded plenty of opportunity to take in films both old and new. My regular destinations tended to be the repertory and arthouse theatres which proliferated at that time – The Electric (especially on Thursday afternoons for the Bergman double-bills), Everyman, Gate, Paris Pullman (where I caught up with the works of Werner Herzog and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg), Academy Oxford Street and, above all, the National Film Theatre. Like the true nerd and completist I was (and still am), I kept a diary of the films I saw and worked out what I still needed to see from the works of the directors I liked the best.

The month of November was particularly important to me at this time, because that’s when the London Film Festival was. I always ensured I had plenty of annual leave left, so that I could attend screenings in the daytime – this was the best way to make sure of getting tickets for the films I really wanted, which were likely to be over-subscribed for their evening showings. 1977 was a particularly memorable year – I vividly remember rushing downstairs to pick up my self-addressed envelope and ripping it open to find that I had tickets for everything I had asked for, including new films by Wenders (The American Friend) and Herzog (Stroszek), Wajda’s Man of Marble, Bertolucci’s 1900 (which turned out to be something of a disappointment) and, above all, Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film From Germany (which turned out to be something of a revelation). The day after the screening of Hitler, I attended a two-hour discussion with the director at the South Bank, which was a wonderful supplement to the film. 

Throughout the seventies and eighties I gradually caught up with large swathes of the history of world cinema as well as keeping up with contemporary releases, something which would be much more difficult for somebody setting out to do the same today: not because of lack of availability – the home video market makes that easier than ever – but simply because of the scale of the task. At the same time, my professional responsibilities began to demand intensive television viewing, though I already had a pretty good grounding in the history of the medium, having been an avid viewer since the late fifties.

When I left the BBC and joined the BFI in 1988 I found myself in a somewhat awkward position – I was advocating for television in an organisation which was devoted to film and where outright hostility to TV was not uncommon. I’m not saying that this turned me against film – far from it – but it did make me question my previous devotion just at a time when the regular flow of masterpieces seemed to be slowing down. This of course was probably as much to do with me as with the respective qualities of film and TV at that time, but the shift in the balance of quality, both in terms of content and delivery systems, was not far away. The BFI has always strongly advocated for the importance of seeing films in a cinema – the mantra being that you can’t beat the quality of seeing the image on a large screen, in the dark and with a crowd of strangers. I have always gone along with the first two of these points but have never been keen on the crowd of strangers. I have always headed, whenever possible, for the front row of the auditorium for three reasons – the absence of anybody in front of me to spoil my view, the legroom and the fact that (especially in sparsely populated afternoon shows) the nearest people, who may be prone to chat, will likely be several rows back.

The biggest changes to the regularity of my cinemagoing came at the turn of the century. I married in 1997, our daughter was born in 1999 and the BFI moved me from central London to our Berkhamsted Conservation Centre in 2000, so I had a whole new lifestyle which could not easily accommodate my previous activities – I chose the films I saw in the cinema carefully, now. At the same time digital developments in television – particularly widescreen, then high definition, DVD (later Blu-ray) and home cinema systems with great sound – not only made watching films at home a better proposition but also started the process whereby television production began to approach and eventually surpass the aesthetic possibilities of cinema. It also reversed the previous complaint that films shown on TV were regularly subject to unacceptable alterations to their aspect ratios – in the era of widescreen television it has been archival TV which has been likely to suffer the most.

In the first decade of the new century, I still resolved to make sure I saw the films which I thought needed to be seen on the big screen at a cinema – new works by Terrence Malick for example. However, another problem arrived to make even this a difficulty. I first noticed it when I went to see Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and asked if there was going to be an interval. There wasn’t – and it was over three hours long! This was part of a trend and it came just as I was reaching that age when an enlarged prostate required more regular bathroom visits. I couldn’t even make it through The Tree of Life without a brief exit and, being the completist that I am (I have always stayed in my seat to the very end of the credits, often to the annoyance of cinema cleaning staff), this was not acceptable. Viewing at home, with pause and resume, was the answer.

I have still attended the occasional cinema screening in recent years, especially at the marvellous Rex cinema in Berkhamsted, or archival restorations to which I have been invited, but my main consumption is on Blu-ray and DVD, plus streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. The short timespan which now exists between theatrical and home video release makes it easy to keep up with contemporary work, while the growing market for restored classics has allowed me to supplement my collection, which embraces much of the history of cinema I first began to explore in the seventies. A quick count showed that I have around 500 films which I first saw in the cinema and retirement affords me the time to revisit them.

But the event which inspired this nostalgic trawl through my life as a film-goer was this year’s London Film Festival, which finished last Sunday. The peculiar circumstances of the year meant that much of the festival’s programme was to be made available on-line, so this event which I once cherished so much was now coming to me, rather than me having to go to it. I booked my tickets with as much anticipation as before, set up my large i-mac with surround sound, and logged in at the appropriate time – I even turned out the lights to make it as much like the LFF of old as possible. Everything was there, just like it always had been – the usual Festival showreel and trailers, followed by the film. I was even able to watch an on-line hour-long discussion with David Byrne the day after the festival screening of Spike Lee’s wonderful film version of his American Utopia show. For me it was the ultimate home cinema experience.

The BFI announced today that this year’s festival set a new record for attendance figures, including the on-line viewers. This is hardly surprising, but you must also remember that the number of films was considerably smaller than for most LFFs of recent years due to the pandemic’s disruption of production. But does this presage a change in approach, or will the festival be back to “business as usual” next year? Much will depend on the effect of the pandemic on the future shape of cinema exhibition in general, though it is likely that the widely predicted decline would actually be a boost to the BFI, which is committed to maintaining the cinema experience and may find itself offering a more unique service. A mixture of simultaneous theatrical and ticketed on-line exhibition for one-off screenings would seem to make economic sense to all concerned. I hope to be back again next year.

Here are Some We Made Earlier

This time of the year we would usually be fully engaged with the start of the Autumn season, containing multiple new series as well as returning favourites. Alas, the pandemic has so disrupted production that we are likely to be in makeshift mode for some time. Nevertheless, the summer and early autumn have managed to provide a handful of worthwhile new offerings made before the lockdown struck, some maybe held back, others maybe brought forward to fill the yawning gaps in the schedules.

Any time is good to get something new from Jimmy McGovern, but it was particularly welcome in the middle of this arid summer. Anthony (BBC1) was clearly always intended for transmission in July anyway, as it was made to mark the 15th anniversary of the racist murder of Anthony Walker in Liverpool. Mc Govern has such a track record of tackling the city’s major traumas that it was a subject perfect for him, yet the BBC rightly emphasised that Anthony’s mother, Gee Walker, had expressly asked McGovern to do it in case it should be remarked in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the question of “white saviours” in fictionalised representations, that it should have been dramatized by a black writer.

Also pertinent in the light of the recent heightened debates about racism was Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (BBC1), though it was considerably more than that as well. I cannot but agree with all the commentators who hailed it as one of the most significant new dramas of the year, though I have to admit that I’m not completely sure why. This is entirely down to my own limited horizons as an ageing straight white man (with age being the most significant of those four descriptors), rather than any problem with the drama itself. I’m not saying it wasn’t aimed at me – like all great drama it was there to be appreciated by everybody – but rather that it was not within the limits of my full understanding in terms of the detail that makes it a masterpiece: the modern social, cultural and musical references and multiple other subtleties that escaped my comprehension. I do, however, have plenty of experience of judging drama as drama, even in those cases where it doesn’t make an immediate personal connection, and, in terms of its narrative drive I could see that this was obviously something outstanding. I particularly liked the fractured timeline approach, allowing some episodes to stand alone, and the way Coel’s character’s growing appreciation of how to create narrative structure in her own work impacted on her understanding and resolution of what had happened to her, even if it did involve presenting a number of possible endings. A definite for the shortlist.

At the other end of the spectrum, the return of There She Goes (BBC2) for a second season, provided me with something so close to my own personal experience, that I also question my ability to judge it objectively. At the time of the first season, I wrote a blog about this experience (Close to Home, November 14th, 2018) and the second season simply continued in precisely the same vein. Every episode, and particularly the flashback scenes in which Rosie’s disability becomes apparent, once again provided moments of intimate recognition. And Jessica Hynes and David Tennant were again exceptional. I won’t put it on the shortlist again, but it remains my personal favourite.

Documentaries are on much safer ground than dramas these days. The things that make an excellent documentary series have remained fairly constant of late and were all clearly on display in the outstanding four-part Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC2): strong subject matter; a balanced roster of the most interesting and articulate interviewees; a gripping narrative structure; and the most relevant archive footage. There is little more to say – it wasn’t ground-breaking, just extremely good programme-making, and it’s on the shortlist.

And if you were looking for a series which illustrated a historical period by dramatic reconstruction and which also worked as character-driven drama, then along came Mrs America (FX/BBC2), Dahvi Waller’s account of the struggles between feminists and a conservative women’s group over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the US in the 1970s. Its strengths were also traditional ones – a well-constructed script which gave equal weight to historical context as to character development, subtle touches which underscored both aspects, great attention to period detail and, above all, terrific performances, particularly from Cate Blanchett as the leader of the conservative faction. It was also refreshing to encounter such a series which is clearly not angling for a second season.

All the above were transmitted on the BBC, which has managed to balance its resources well in the extraordinary circumstances of the year. ITV’s most impressive drama offering of the period was Des, a dramatisation of the interrogation and trial of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. It was clearly inspired by the success of a series like Mindhunter (Netflix), which showed that having such a criminal talk openly to investigators across a desk could be just as chilling, if not more so, than reconstructing his crimes. You need a charismatic actor for it to work well and David Tennant (who seems pretty ubiquitous this year) more than rose to the task.

Most of the above appeared during mid to late summer. The most interesting of the early autumn offerings are on subscription and streaming platforms and are ongoing at the time of writing, so I may well have to return to them later. And the most interesting of those is Lovecraft Country (HBO/Sky Atlantic), which counts Jordan Peele and J.J.Abrams amongst its executive producers, and does it ever show. A mixture of social comment on the history of racism and outrageous horror/fantasy with terrific effects, it never fails to startle, though its ultimate destination remains (so far) a mystery. Meanwhile, I Hate Suzie (Sky Atlantic) is superficially similar to I May Destroy You, and I have many of the same problems with it, though without the clear conviction this time that I am watching something of significance, but I will stick with it just in case.

I have, on several occasions, used this blog to sing the praises of Channel 4’s Utopia and to lament the fact that it was cancelled before completion (and, indeed, to hope that it may at some stage be continued). So, I was bound to be attracted to Gillian Flynn’s American re-make (Amazon), if only to check it out for comparison. Unsurprisingly, it is not a patch on the original (how could it possibly be?), but I’m certainly sticking with it for the duration, if only in the hope that the story will be completed.

The pandemic has, of course, thrown greater responsibility onto TV archives to fill the schedules. Most of this has involved straight repeats or compilations, but, in some instances, has inspired developments in the creative use of archival material. Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge (BBC2) was a series of four in which the documentary-maker looked back thematically at his career and reflected thoughtfully on the meaning of the shows he had made, while at the same time, catching up on-line with many of those whose lives he had explored in order to get their take as well. It was a simple idea, but very effectively and movingly executed. Preceding it on BBC2 on Sundays, was Harry Hill’s World of TV, a laugh-out-loud dissection of different TV genes – another simple idea beautifully delivered, thanks to what must have been exhaustive archival research. I particularly liked the sequences in which he played multiple examples of recurring tropes, such as the large number of highly respected crime dramas which have advanced their plots by having somebody enter a room and dramatically announce “so-and-so has regained consciousness”.

But, the most creative use of archive came along just a couple of nights ago with John Wyver’s 50thanniversary documentary about Play for Today, Drama Out of a Crisis (BBC4). The density of the high definition 16:9 screen was fully employed to cram into its 90-minute span as much material as this legendary strand deserved, all of it presented and framed in its original transmission ratio and selected to illustrate the points being made as effectively as possible. And, of course, the anniversary is also a great excuse for the BBC to transmit the best archival repeats of the lockdown, though they probably would have done so in “normal” circumstances anyway.

A-B CDs

FCB3BFB0-E5AA-49F2-B1C2-CB9B37E16EC7_4_5005_c

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.

6158369D-1F1B-475B-9190-1BA816BB568C_4_5005_c

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”.

B2E62C25-3961-4124-99DC-DB64F3B13E8E_4_5005_c

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.

18157E6D-DA5B-477F-B8E4-A55C2C6CAAC1_4_5005_cB7C0CFF5-4E58-4B33-942F-FE2F03117DB6_4_5005_c

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

9DEF34D6-2F17-451A-BEE4-B85355B2B71E_4_5005_c

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.

E591C44D-704A-4624-8FDE-98A86A60CD76_4_5005_c

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.

328F11F2-57DF-4E50-AE8B-2B54FCDF06D2_4_5005_c

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.

E30E018A-DF23-4F5F-A21F-E417C6724CD7_4_5005_c

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.

D82C104B-5D57-4B06-9486-A0A96DA24FC3_4_5005_c

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

 

The New and the Normal

72E43890-C1C0-48BA-B7A2-A964C1784DCE_4_5005_c

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.

716096B1-D4B1-4B08-9780-2C2F97928F4A_4_5005_c

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.

D6A8C925-C60F-4F54-A0B6-598023B91CC0_4_5005_c

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.

5A83FF02-D829-4E40-BB0E-C658F977FAB2_4_5005_c

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.

97660CCC-F5AD-4815-B5EE-E34C59EFF507_4_5005_c

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.

625569DC-DFC5-4FBE-8956-1D11C5FBB45D_4_5005_c

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.

C05B3ECF-66DC-4074-B0DE-5D83B1FF8F46_4_5005_c

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.

8834FCA3-74D0-4BE8-9255-63964016A8A1_4_5005_c

Tales from the Loft

B78A318F-3BC3-40E1-9927-EA9284BA83D0

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).

AC6E6BEA-D18F-4B05-B62A-49B5A1F9463E_4_5005_c

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.

38EBB777-8CBE-4089-A9D3-18FF2ADAA2A6_4_5005_c

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.

00EBA6A0-59A8-44E2-B7E1-D6D52CBE2CB7_4_5005_c

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.

240B6357-4796-4E61-BCB5-0DD28D7B1F8B_4_5005_c

Time for a Break?

45D8BA84-7B63-41FC-A23A-660ADAE13FC5_4_5005_c

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.

54D78F2B-F8BA-4AC9-9CC8-1C1555CBBF9C_4_5005_c

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.

FC185164-6228-4D48-92CF-7B3602DD5F64_4_5005_c

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:

250F1DA5-18D7-444F-AE96-E2D86F46F540_4_5005_c

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.

399E49CA-1930-4F15-B5E3-744869304A46_4_5005_c

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.

9C2889BC-CE7C-4325-B5E1-40D12D69E516_4_5005_c

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.

E8D75C64-4860-4D2B-B267-AF32C4F9A86D_4_5005_c

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.

BEC45305-22CE-405A-A641-F2DE1F5C6DFE_4_5005_c

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.

82830A79-6334-43EE-9388-28D8617815D8_4_5005_c

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!